Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Agnes Vein - Of Chaos & Law
Self-released in 2004
Foivos - Drums
Erikos Negros - Bass
Sakis Kioses - Guitar, Vocals
"Elric, sorcerer and swordsman
Slayer of kin
Despoiler of his homeland
Last of his line"
In the writings of Michael Moorcock there is a foundational notion of eternal strife between the forces of Chaos and those of Law. The former seeking to destabilize the fabric of common reality with their horrid beauty and constant spider motion, the latter standing for stoic staticism, stalwart celibate champions of a world that makes sense, coheres, follows causal premises, is ended. Evolution and entropy, birth and death, the inner and the outer, mirror fragments fall into the mirror pool, how darkly they reflect.
This duality is one that has had more than a surface appeal to the Heavy Metal artists that were inspired by Moorcock and many of his peers. The parallel is simple and so I'll illustrate it as Moorcock did, with his tales of the Melnibonéan prince. His sickly flesh, deficit genes and languid lifestyle in the ancient palaces of his bloodline could not withhold his lust for exploration and adventure. And unlike the barbarian Conan whose journey was an outer one carved on the flesh of many, the depths that Elric of Melniboné plunged were inner: his questioning of the very basis of his existence was the gravitational pull that sent him on wild trajectories throughout the young kingdoms of man and beast.
For the teenager reading fantasy pulp, there were many strong-willed heroes that plundered the earth with great abandon to idolize. And for Conan the conqueror, given as he was to his famous bouts of depression, it was still the rippling tendon and muscle that crushed the world with iron will that characterized him.
Elric instead, of frail flesh and dwindling spirit, seeks refuge in alchemy to not even prosper but merely survive. Concoctions eldritch, potions fashioned to lend a mockery of atavistic vitality. A perversion of the natural ways, where the strong survive by crushing the weak. Elric drew from the countless centuries of tradition of his cruel homeland, his artificial willpower. He was after all borne of high class and had ample opportunity to study sorcery and metaphysics. In the end he meets his counterpart in the black sword, Stormbringer and needs the lesser drugs no more for the infernal black sword swallows the souls of those it slays and lends the wielder their occulted will. It slays the outer and gives birth in the inner. What does it tell us for those that at an early age were ensnared by the tales of its onyx light?
Heavy Metal is romantic art, and as such, has in its core a tall order. The quintessential tall order, as it were: live forever, destroy death, purge the world and give birth to it anew. Omniscience and End. Those that are inspired by art that has these ridiculous measuring points often feel tremendous guilt at their own incapacity to materialize in the real world even a semblance of such tenets. There is a certain kind of pain, unlike the common physical one or even the mental anguish of psychological withholding and social deprivation that many dreamers share: the pain of being unable to achieve what dreams inspire. This pain is private. If it can be explained to others it is not easily and not without risk lest one enjoys constant low-brow mockery by self-appointed 'realists'.
It is two-fold our embarrassment that most of us come from a comfortable middle-class background and haven't wanted for anything too terribly in life. Heavy Metal was not borne of this middle-class ennui but it was certainly adopted heavily by its sufferers. Much like Elric, metal fans do not have the willpower that characterizes the savage will to kill to survive. They instead are decrepit and morose, they have everything they need but they're not happy for it. They turn to the fantastic alchemy of the heavy metals for they need a tool of strength to open up their weak hearts.
So then Moorcock, with his tales of Elric and his black drug-sword created a potent alternative to the cruel feedback loop of romanticism, where the Fates look down on the weaklings who like the songs of splendor but can only achieve dour daily nothings in their name. He instead restates the ancient premise that the fantastical hero that survives many perils and prolonged Odysseys is but a vehicle for Fate itself and his own powers are limited, nay, augmented by an Aristotelian Organon: a killing tool that yet gives life. As Elric loathes and loves his black sword, so the listeners of Heavy Metal may through that see the way to accept not just their incandescent love for the high art that inspires them, but also the hidden loathing for own aspirations not achieved.
Heavy Metal is a black sword whose power is only lent and will in the end assist suicide, ablation for what gifts it has bestowed. For the time one has it in their hands, they have to choose to what polarity they will turn its moon-carved blade. Will it be to praise elder god Apollo, bringer of light and cruel law, his white-cast eyes bearing judgment and science on all earthly things, or will it be to glorify mega Dionysus, cradled in grapeseed and maniacal with frenzied laughter? Either season though it appears never-ending, does gradually, with the passing of the storms and cold sleep, give way to the other.
A human life seems to me to be an unlimited thing, experientially. I will not know death because when they say I have died, I will not be there to live death. Therefore, although evidence of death is plentiful around me, it is with a certain arrogance that I secretly believe I will never have to leave here. 'Here' will leave with me, instead. Isn't that a comforting thought?
Death is then, for society to function, substituted with something that I, as all, have experienced: suffering and loss. Others plead you not to give them death with this explanation of external loss and pain. It is the constant fear of suffering and loss that humans have christened death in its wake. Death is useless.
But suffering and loss is an internalization of an outer experience, it is something the outside inflicts on the individual, it does not equip them in the least for any ingressive quest. It could be said instead that the constant pain that the outer world inflicts on the individual retards their potential for the self-discovery of what death could mean, inside, what it could be to not exist, to never have existed.
What is chaos, then but the end that came before the beginning. It means that what 'they' say exists, doesn't. It never did. Chaos is motion, eternal motion, undefinable and unlawful in the purest sense. Law, in ancient Greek, also described the etymology of physics, the description of causal relationships. When everything is in ever-constant mutation and motion, such relationships are impossible to define. Then and only then, when the pain of a static world inflicted on what is fundamentally a jubilant reason-less inner existence has been halted, can the lone traveler ponder what it could mean to exist, and what it could mean not to.
Agnes Vein are a Greek band that plays epic doom metal. Their demo "Of Chaos & Law" is very evocative of the qualities of Moorcock's work (though not his style of writing). They employ a pulse that flows from the ponderous and glacial to a frenzied and war-like gallop. There is a lot of antithesis in their songs, yet the compositions, though simple, are elegant and cohesive.
The aspects of the whole here are very foundational: the most advanced technique on display is seen on the '90s metal informed drums. This means they're quite busy and heavy on the double-bass, with the rolls following the cadences of the riffs. This is an artifice devised by thrash metal bands and since then employed generally on the whole field of extreme music. Agnes Vein are dated to 2004 purely on this level. The songs on display otherwise could have belonged to many great Heavy Metal records from 1986 and onwards.
There are rhythm guitars that play the structures of the songs in power chords. Saturated middles put meat on the bones and there is no excess fat, no technical flourish and needless belaboring the point. The riffs here are specific and refreshed sparingly. The mode is muscular and therefore masculine, direction is conveyed by repetition and simple ABCABC structures. The songs go in very specific places though what is to be found there is left to the imagination.
The bass guitar is uncharacteristically prominent for modern metal perhaps, but this is more common on the doom metal sub-genres where 'heaviness' is often equated literally with the low frequency stack. They play fluid lines that often counterpoint with the more choppy rhythm guitars. The classicist beauty of this record is found in this interplay and I would hesitate to call it ample. There is however something very enticing about a band that plays on very primordial themes yet sparingly embellishes on them with gentle elaboration between no more than two or three voices. I think that a lot of metal music and its widespread appeal can be summed in this effect: something simple and direct, yet with a layer of subtle grace.
On top of the mix lie watery guitar leads, drenched in curious reverb and distance, along with the vocals. There is a certain suspicion that Agnes Vein felt their singer ill-equipped to stand front and center in the mix so they instead buried him in echo chambers and thought nobody would notice his faults. This - perhaps - unfounded assumption arrives to a winning idiosyncratic sound. The singer is adequately tuneful and his vocal lines are splendid, his Greek accent is very clear. The reverb downplays the importance of the individual lyric (scarce lines may be caught but no more than that). For those familiar with the works of Michael Moorcock, every signifier offered here is strong with his archetypes.
There have been other great Heavy Metal bands inspired by the tales of Elric (Cirith Ungol first and foremost) but what attracts me to this take by Agnes Vein the most is that it is not a literary approximation of the source material, it is an aural one. I read the Elric stories many years before I ever knew of the Greek band, but when I finally did listen to them, their aesthetic simply clicked with the weight of many invented memories of a fantastic place. I cannot imagine one without the other now, and it is very significant when such a thing happens to art that is separated not only by disparate mediums but also decades of social change. The individuals in Agnes Vein did not live through the sixties nor were they British neither, I would expect, have they taken copious amounts of psychoactive substances, all of which contributed very directly and clearly to the work of the fantasy author. Yet somehow, from London to Thessaloniki and from hippie communes to conservative middle-class ennui, a silver string connects. The lumbering crack of shifting earth and storm, defiance to the outer Law and glorification of the inner chaos.
What is there to take from this approach, considering that one is gathering lessons to apply to their own Heavy Metal, is that it is perhaps a balsam to the wound of romance to acknowledge Fate as a contributing force, and not just will and absence of. And that even if one's footing is found - after the veil of decades of passing seasons has been lifted - to amount to no clear stride in any direction, this is no failure. It is however, drama, motion and force and perhaps it is that, that the Heavy Metal musician should focus to express. Not just the Gods of Law & Chaos with their frowning, grinning faces, but also the man, the plaything of fate whom so often fails them and disappoints and then eventually realizes what it means to not exist, to never have existed. Perhaps there is a song for him as well to sing. A song of hope as well as laughter in the face of unsurmountable desire.