My first thought, entering CBGB for the first of “two nights of crust, grind, and doom at the birthplace of underground rock,” was, How fucking refreshing. A club in the East Village where no one is wearing Prada. And now that cute eclecticism is the order of the day, a monolithic aesthetic might be purifying, like a Color Field painting or one of those meditation rooms recently featured in the Times‘s Home section.
CBs was packed when Anal Cunt went on, and in a classic speedmetal moment bandleader Seth Putnam leapt into the audience the first song out. Only his fans were shouting for “Song Number Eight,” which authentically dates back to an early album: as Anal Cunt’s transgressive / “transgressive” name suggests, they’re a takeoff on conventional metal’s literalism–one album, Top Forty Hits, has 40 (extremely brief) songs. But they also begin from the fact of pain, and how you make art that acknowledges pain but gives pleasure. And they’re hilarious. One song intro went: “The street life in New York is rough… I’ve bought Biohazard albums, I know what it’s like”; another, “This song is called ‘Face It, You’re a Metal Band,’ and it’s about Brutal Truth.” The burly, beer-bellied singer asked, “How many of you have weight-loss problems?” by way of introducing “Body by Auschwitz.”
Most of AC’s songs embody a parody of the verse-chorus pattern: Seth shouts the title line over drum rolls and guitar runs, the drummer and guitarist focus on an austere, speedy “metal” guitar pattern, then Seth shouts the title line again, and these two sections repeat for 20 or 40 or 60 seconds. On record (most of AC’s oeuvre is available on Earache), you can turn down the volume so it sounds like something you’d hear at Bang on a Can, or raise the volume and act out your bad day. It’s metal in quotes, but with its thrill: everyone in the band is really good at what they do, the speed and passion work better for being so carefully rationed, and the real potential for violence keeps it from being too easy.
Unable to disguise his pleasure in performing, Seth seemed like the sweet guy he’s been in our brief offstage talks. But the last time AC played CBGB I’d seen him haul one of the weighty restaurant tables from the floor to the stage and then toss it into the audience. Some of his rage is parodistic, but some is real. And some of the songs are just jokes, but some of them create the sickening vertigo of real art. When you watch kids slam to “Women–nature’s punching bag” you tend to aestheticize what you hear, because the lyrics are almost indecipherable, and Anal Cunt make screaming seem like just another instrument, but finally you do have to acknowledge both the lyrical content and your complicity in it and your pleasure in the signs of pain from which this band has decided to make art. They’ll probably hate me for saying it, but Anal Cunt are more like Barbara Kruger and David Wojnarowicz than any musical equivalents I can think of, and they deserve to be as famous. Keep an eye out for the release Earache wouldn’t do, their “sensitive folk album,” Picnic of Love, forthcoming on Miami-based Off the Record.
Anal Cunt are Yankees, but the best nonironic bands on this bill were from the South, where all manner of archaic traditions are preserved, from barbeque to quilting to fundamentalism to death metal. The last two are probably related; how much radio evangelism does it take to make writing songs about the devil or naming your band Eyehategod seem cool? Despite their dreadlocks, dog collars, and black band T-shirts, Buzzoven and Eyehategod look like they grew up knowing how to fix a car and clean a gun, listening to country radio–which shares death metal’s artistic conservatism.
Buzzoven insist on their regionalism in their sarcastic slogan, “The New South,” but they clearly have listened to their share of Other music. With their four guitarists (including bass) and obsession with droney low-end overtone effects, Buzzoven are closer to Glenn Branca than Slayer, Sabbath, or Motorhead–admittedly Branca as filtered through his protégé Paige Hamilton’s Helmet. Their heaviness comes from guitar sonics, the same place Sonic Youth got it, and transcends “metal” coding–if you close your eyes and don’t happen to open them while the singer is miming garroting himself with his mic cord.
Eyehategod, from whom hints of the Allman Brothers and even the country blues seep forth agreeably, have no avant influences that I can find, and their heaviness comes from the usual metal clichés. When I saw them a couple of years ago, I alone in the crowd found them really boring, but either I have become more open-minded or they have grown into the authority implicit in those clichés and the hubris of their name.
In other news, Today is the Day feature Slayer-esque guitar riffs in a vaguely grunge context, a metal band for kids who listen to Unsane or Jesus Lizard and make fun of Sepultura and Metallica as too mainstream. I don’t think I could tell a tape of Today Is the Day from Dissociate, and I could only tell Crisis apart because they have a female vocalist. Dissociate and Crisis are painfully well-intentioned and literal to a fault. This is metal all the way down–baroque, operatic, enormously loud, and, to my ears, fossilized. Crisis, who organized the two-day event, are marginally more interesting because they have a charismatic, if overly dramatic, frontwoman, but except for the few songs on which former Swans guitarist Norman Westberg joined the band, the bass-guitar-drum ensemble sounded thin.
These bands can’t possibly live up to their names because nothing comes with the force of revelation, or even shock, anymore. In music, this can all be summarized in one sentence: the sampler has a sound like TV has a look. All “content” has been leveled and is equally dramatic or undramatic. Power chords and thunderous double bass drums have no more undiluted signification than screams, or whispers. Perhaps this is why, after all the bands I saw except Anal Cunt, the brief return of silence at set’s end sucked all the energy out of the room. As in: now what?