Wednesday, September 15, 2010
The 3rd and the Mortal - Painting on Glass
Released in 1996 by Voices of Wonder
Ann-Mari Edvardsen - Vocals, Keyboards
Finn-Olav Holthe - Guitar, Keyboards
Trond Engum - Guitar
Geir Nilsen - Guitar, Keyboards
Bernt Rundberget - Bass
Rune Hoemsnes - Drums
Many additional musicians helped in this recording.
The 3rd and the Mortal were a Norwegian group. Their origins were in the 'doom/death' metal genre and from there they moved towards an amalgamation of such with ambient and electronic music. Their shift from here to there is documented in their four full-length albums and two EPs between 1992 and 2002. "Painting on Glass" is their second album, released in 1996, which straddles the apex of that evolutionary curve.
Doom metal is simultaneously the oldest kind of metal, as its characteristics (ponderous pace, extended song lengths, rhythmic austerity (no 'groove') and relentlessly dark lyrical and aesthetic subject matter, often concerned with personal anguish and existential futility) were those defining the first metal band, Black Sabbath, and one of the youngest as it has been formalized as a genre and cloned extensively only by the late '80s. Black Sabbath's early '70s material was not considered doom metal when it was first released as the term did not yet exist. In fact at the time, there were no metal sub-genres. 'Heavy metal' was a term coined to describe vaguely clumsy and loud rock and roll acts and it was an initially pejorative term at that. The co-opting of it and the further specialization in smaller sub-strands was the result of its rising popularity during the market heyday of metal, in the late '80s. In any case, any and all doom metal bands since adopt some their characteristics from Black Sabbath's palette. Other aspects of Black Sabbath -as interpreted often through Judas Priest or Iron Maiden - were extrapolated upon to give rise to almost all the other sub-genres of metal.
Death metal is a late development, occurring in tandem with the resurgence of doom metal in the late '80s. It is instead fast and visceral, it takes its morphology from thrash metal and hardcore punk and pushes the mix to a chaotic extreme. The most defining characteristics of death metal are the growled, inhuman vocals and its morbid fascination with depictions of death, disease and decay.
Doom/death is a British invention, typified by the band Paradise Lost and furthered by many in the early '90s. It takes from doom metal the sound design and dark lyrical matter and marries it to death metal's vocal extremity and bipolar tendency towards extreme speed. Their anemic progeny is dressed in frilly garments romantic and wept for extensively. Doom/death is really more than the sum of its parts, though it's unfortunate it never got a better moniker than the exact sum of them. It is unlike death metal in that it is entirely humorless. Death metal, concerned as it was with the nonsensical and random risk of mortality, carries a 'horror show' aspect, as if there's nothing to do when you see a horrible car crash but laugh. Consider also how some watch splatter films in a jovial manner - these are the people that at the time started death metal bands. Doom/death however services its morbid existential concerns with a framework that closely mirrors Romanticist notions and ontology. The car crash is not just the result of life's design, but a monument to its deepest principles, it is as beautiful as it is horrific. The implication is - as in 'The Birth of Tragedy' - that the purpose of drama is the affirmation of life, the re-appreciation of the here and now. It is often said that those that speak often about death and their desire of it are the ones that are safest from actually committing suicide - it's those that silently ponder death that reach for it. Likewise doom/death's morbid fascination seems to dispel the magnetic pull towards death, it instead incorporates it into life and so makes weakness into strength.
The 3rd and the Mortal did not employ any growled vocals in their records, nor are there any excursions into choppy thrash-inspired supersonics. However they were obviously influenced by the those romantic metal foundations laid by aforementioned British bands. They instead employed female operatic vocals and varied extra-instrumentation to broaden their palette. They were accompanied in this evolution by a great number of other graduates of doom/death in many countries around the world in the early '90s. This sub-strand of a sub-strand was later defined by some predominantly European journalists as 'atmospheric metal' and would become much more popular for a time than the genres it spawned from, before collapsing in and on itself. An unfortunate term, for what sort of useful music lacks an atmosphere? Nonetheless, one that clearly describes the direction metal music was taking in the early to mid '90s.
"Painting on Glass" sounds very much like ambient music, also. It it mostly gentle in textures and rhythmics and welcomes the listener in its introspective space. It could be used as background music, like ambient music is intended for and yet it takes a wholly different shape when listened to with undivided attention. Each piece is built upon few riffs yet has a progression to it and more importantly the succession of the pieces conveys a storytelling arc that could be lost on the inattentive listener. The material alternates between a mid-tempo pulse that seems largely the same for all the pieces that have it and weightless floating for the intermediate instrumentals that surround. There are only a few pieces that have distorted guitar chords as their backbone - an otherwise definitive aspect of metal music. More showcase delicate acoustic arpeggios along with extended & sustained guitar lead work on top. For long-time listeners of metal music, it must have been baffling at the time, to hear so many trappings of metal music (riffs, robust percussion, shimmering lead guitar) divorced from their common surface qualities (distortion, dry mix). This tendency was thoroughly explored in that decade of metal to the point where the definition of metal itself in the minds of many, drifted to include any rock-based music that is vaguely loud and imposing. It is something modern appreciators of metal music generally do not know: their tastes that now cradle anything from industrialized dance music to sloppy stoner rock to shapeless drone ambient to lowbrow hardcore punk as being metal, are the result of uncoordinated and unintentional efforts of now forgotten 'atmospheric metal' bands in the '90s.
The sound design of the album is remarkable. For most metal bands the performance captured in the studio is the absolute guide to the sound design. That is to say, an engineer is employed to augment and stylize the physical quality of the playing captured. The staccato bursts of activity, the sharpness of the stops and the pummeling drive of the rhythms. Here The 3rd and the Mortal take a very different approach. The mix is very even, every layer can be heard and no voice floats many decibels above the foundation. Dynamics are conveyed not by fluctuation in volume of individual parts, but by introducing or removing voices from the whole, almost like a baroque approach to mixing. Guitar leads hit accents as soft as the acoustic instruments that riff the context, the bass drums do not cut through as they usually do on metal records. Everything is washed in delay and reverb like on gothic rock album, perhaps. There is little treble to the whole, middle frequencies dominate and sand off the edges of the stone.
It is in this sound design then that The 3rd and the Mortal approach the idea of 'ambient metal' most of all. Their gentleness is of a wave, the continued flow and ebb and implied pulse is what characterizes this album. Even the silence between (or sometimes inside) songs seems to bid farewell to past and introduce future riffs seamlessly. That said, there are builds that lead to violent crescendos, but the peaks also slope back into the great plateaus that characterize the majority of the album's length. The vocals are layered and wet with reverb as well, giving them a spectral quality. There is no exerted passion to them, they carry sombre melodies like suspended lights flickering in the mist. And what do they sing about?
I am bound to past
And stagnant presence
Sallow faces, seducers
Seize my threads of mind
To suscipe pre animabus illis
Quarum hodie memoriam facimus
Common experiences for human beings are few. Hope and hopelessness, a sense of unreality, the passing of time. The rest which we pretend to be public domain is not. Each of us feels complex emotions differently and our language is only a tool for facilitating the friction between our subjective lives. Language, when employed to describe how we are alike in any other way than the fundamental, is a weapon meant to convince others of their sameness.
People make small-talk of the weather, isn't it funny? Seasons are primary and universal. Cold, warm, blooming, humid. "Painting on Glass" is an autumnal record. Not because I listen to it more at that time of the year but because whenever I listen to it, it conjures the feelings of Autumn in itself. That is generally, the power of great art, not to augment the daily lives of those that peruse it, but to manifest with force its own rule and dare the recipient to engage it. To survive it. "Painting on Glass" wages war with gentility, but a war it is, still. Who survives a war unscathed? Art that leaves one unscarred is only a plaything.
Autumn is often defined by memories of overcast skies, falling leaves and of rain. But a defining autumnal experience is also that of the new day after the rain, the smell of the earth opening up and the vibrant, almost unreal clarity of the atmosphere. In emotional parallel, "Painting on Glass" travels from a sense of sorrow, loss and resigned torment, to that of a solace, quiet and respite. The pendulum levitates weightlessly at the extremes but quickly returns to the long travel in the middle. This is also how The 3rd and the Mortal sounds, persistent and fleeting, never touching on extremes for more than a short moment. It is a circle that inspires both ugliness and beauty, mixed and varied in value but conserved in its palette.
I gave you my word
And the shafts of light
Opened the sky
But as your shadow rise
Passing colours in your mind
I bow down silently
I gave you my love
As the rusting trees
Sprinkled blades on the ground
And as your shadow rise
Passing colours in your mind
I bow down silently
Creeping frost pits my skin
Crystal orchids blooming
It often feels as if this music wants there to be no end to this back and forth. The romantic impulse is essentially narcissistic: I suffer therefore I am. I can tell of beauty because of pain. Those that do not suffer cannot appreciate true beauty. This is the terror of the pendulum motion, the endless sway that marries extremes to each other. But as the pendulum eventually comes to a rest without external force to fuel it, so here we do not truly run in a circle, but up a spiral fueled by human hope. Painting on Glass obfuscates its hope with the many beautiful flowers of hopelessness. behind its trajectory a guiding hope of teliosis. Not to say that this is a fantastic vacation in a horror sideshow meant to titillate and educate and once one leaves and returns to their normal life they can gloat over their brief stint with depression. Hope is hidden deep, here. Exit from the seeming circle of "Painting on Glass" is difficult, the record is long and not many will be attentive when it delivers.
The pulsation of my blood
The pressure splits my skin
Burns feeble flesh into ashes
Sulphurous screams in my head
In a petrified soul
Romantic music is inspired by terror but arrives to hope. There is awe in terror, there is awe in internalizing violence but violence is ends to different means: desire. This is why Romantic art will never be outmoded. As long as humans live, they will desire. And the desire of something greater, of something purer and clearer, is hope. We are trained in docility, but hope still burns hidden, shameful, inside us. Ultimately the desire is of theosis. Of immortality and absolute control of the inner and the outer. In Greek, the word for perfect is 'telios', whose root is 'telos', the final end. This is how hope feeds back into terror. To be perfect, you must not be. To live forever, you must die. To understand Heavy Metal, think of how these concepts resonate not in you the adult with your embroidered dress of common sense, but instead on you the shy, introverted teenager, feeling like an alien being inside your own skin, misunderstood and directionless, waiting for life to arrive. Is it a wonder that the premise of absolute control achieved only through self-flagellation and misery is attractive to the teenage psyche?
Heavy Metal is informed of this path, of birth, life and death. It is heavy exactly because of the weight of this realization. It is metal because it revolts to the path, it wildly gesticulates alternatives in full knowledge of their futility. It is intensely tragic, hope. This is a life in itself, that state of mind where beauty is eternally married to horror. The grace of such art is not easy to quantify but it is easy to feel. Romantic art does not inspire romantic act; We shall never conquer life through death, never destroy the old world to give birth to the new. Romantic art, taken literally and especially when looked upon with the eyes trained in modernity, is ridiculous. But what else is ridiculous is any true desire one feels in their heart and this is why we do not show each other our hearts easily. We are trained to scoff at romance in favor of some cynical, intellectually and emotionally bankrupt sense of 'realism' to which I am certain no human being alive truly adheres to. There is no real, but there are advantages to claiming otherwise.
Heavy Metal inspires one to abandon some of these advantages of participating in the play. Like a peculiar form of self-inflicted social autism, it asks naively, "Why be ashamed, what's there to lose but everything?". It pleads to unravel the romance in our hearts. Heavy Metal is an embarrassing thing and it's no wonder that, for those whose dalliance with it was limited, a need to put distance between themselves and that period, is a priority. As if to atone for their brief amour with romance itself. "I was momentarily deluded in my youth to think my youth would last forever, but I am older now and hear your voice clearly, outside."
The 3rd and the Mortal are very heavy here, but they are not crushing. Oftentimes, metal music is concerned with conveying weight and pressure with every element of its sound. Extreme shifts from fast to slow, lurching and uncoordinated to a machine-like unison crush, extremely loud to louder, all the while overflowing with minute surface information. The 3rd and the Mortal here are instead like anti-gravity. Airy and open to the point where one feels themselves suspend upwards, through the atmosphere and towards the greater darkness. It is there where nothing's left, where the boundaries between an external and internal journey are blurred. Like a sensory deprivation tank, the endless distance leaves only the inside for examination. "Painting on Glass" is a monument to the self-discovery that occurs in vacuum.
I want to inhale you like fresh air
But slowly you spin a cocoon and disappear
Let me open your seals and enter your garden
Let me seek to find your well
Then I'll sit down by the source
And wait for the deep secrets to reveal
I change with you
I extricate some threads
And make a place for you
Then I become you
And you become me
A useful lesson here for those that seek to make their own romantic art, especially Heavy Metal, is that the form is not as important as it might seem. What is important is the content and the intention it serves. It is too often that metal purists, disgusted as they exclaim to be with the state of modern metal, will revert their own stylistic efforts to some approximation of the genre tropes circa 1980. That music often succeeds or fails as Heavy Metal, but not because of its retro-conservative form but on whether it really has intentionally crafted aesthetic, philosophical and emotional impact as romantic art. Some people can only feel comfortable to explore romance when they're clad in denim and leather and spikes. Others - like The 3rd and the Mortal - do away with that dress code. At the time of their release, albums such as these were tagged as being 'avant garde' because they didn't fit in the existing metal canon. With the benefit of hindsight however, it is easy to trace a direct lineage from the aesthetics and concerns of Black Sabbath to them. There is nothing really 'avant garde' in the content of this album and it only serves to confuse the meaning of Heavy Metal itself to call anything that doesn't ape only its surface characteristics, something else.
That said, it is worthwhile to consider how The 3rd and the Mortal's trajectory through the arts did take them far away from metal in the end. In their next two albums (and in further offerings by resultant project 'The Soundbyte') the sonics slowly abandoned the riff as the morphological foundation and the lyrics became concerned increasingly with modern sociality and inevitably, reflections of life through the broken shards of post-modernity. There is a lot of merit in those recordings, but it goes to show that indeed it takes very little for something to become, or leave behind, metal. Romance and riffs, distortion and arrogance. The horror of loneliness and the salvation in individuality, the vilification of lust and the glorification of desire, order to chaos and order through chaos. Damnation and his beautiful sister. these are the ways to tell what Heavy Metal is. Once one knows what it inspires, they know what they desire.
Behind your door
Your name carved into a stone
Water in your hands