poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

An Evil Cradling

K-Punk asks a pertinent question about Xasthur’s “ambient” qualities:

But then again, Xasthur are curiously calming, too, if you play them at an ambient volume. (The lack of tension-release, the swampy viscosity, make Xasthur excellent background music, really good to work to.) Which poses the question: how much of Xasthur’s nihilism comes from the sound, and how much from the words - or more precisely (since the lyrics are all but inaudible), the titles?

I’ve been drifting in and out of sleep with Xasthur on the headphones on the train to and from work for the past few days; it’s probably just as well that subliminal programming doesn’t really work, or my unconscious would undoubtedly be in a bad way by now. All the same, I don’t think that it’s only the titles that index Xasthur’s nihilism: that “swampy viscosity” of sonic texture envelops a decidedly warped tonal language, quite at odds with the unthreatening diatonicity that much “ambient” music seems to have inherited from the minimalism of Steve Reich and Terry Riley.

A typical passage will feature separate guitar parts, panned to the far left and far right, playing in unison or consonantly in harmony but occasionally veering off in different directions so as to producing jarring collisions - these seem accidental at first, but are ratified by repetition so that the “wrongness” becomes structural, like the eldritch geometry of Lovecraft’s ancient architecture. One part will shift up a semitone, leaving the other anchored where it was but now drastically out of key, before returning to its original root. The resulting discords are not so much the “outside notes” of jazz as the “simultaneous false relations” of early Renaissance composers such as Carlo Gesualdo: deliberate tonal contradictions introduced into an otherwise conventional tonal system (most of Xasthur’s themes are in the harmonic minor scale) for expressive effect.

The harmonic weirdness produces textural effects, too. Trad metal relies heavily on the “power chord”, in which the harmonics produced by the root and fifth note resonate together to produce a particularly satisfying, deep, coherent timbre; it sounds especially good when overdriven. Xasthur’s guitar fuzz goes out of its way to avoid sounding “good” in this way, introducing minor intervals (tritones, minor thirds and semitones) wherever possible to produce a much more complex and unsettled harmonic structure. The queasy, pervasive out-of-tuneness produced by the use of a wide chorus effect (also noticeable in the synth parts) plays a further role in disrupting metal’s traditional pull towards the harmonically convergent.

I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that Malefic’s nihilism forms a consistent aesthetic philosophy, directly expressed in the compositional techniques used in Xasthur’s music. If Xasthur’s music is “ambient”, its ambience is that of the accursed or poisoned womb: the “No-exit despair” phase of Stanislav Grof’s Basic Perinatal Matrix II, glossed here in terms any follower of Black metal would find immediately familiar:

In Grof’s schema, BPM I is followed by BPM II (i.e., Basic Perinatal Matrix II), which are experiences and feelings related to the time of “no exit” in the womb and claustrophobic-like feelings occurring to nearly all humans in the late stages of pregnancy and especially with the onset of labor, when the cervix is not yet dilated. Since there does not seem to be any “light at the end of the tunnel” – metaphorically speaking – it is characterized by feelings of depression, guilt, despair, and blame, and a characterization of oneself as being in the position of “the victim.” It is very much like deMause’s period of collective feelings of entrapment, strangulation, suffocation, and poisonous placenta, which he has found to precede the actual outbreak of war or other violence.