Friday, January 21, 2011

Atrox - Contentum

Released in 2000 by Season Of Mist

Eivind - guitars
Rune - guitars, samples, sounds
Monika - vocals, synths
Tor Arne - drums
Hingst Hirbel - bass

There's a woman and a man inside every soul. Opposites longing for reconciliation, a lifetime spent to bridge this gap, one fashioned of modern usefulness and reason. Men destroy, women create, a quaint, outmoded line of thinking. Men will spear and kill and women will take the kill and make it into life, what a laughable simplification of the endlessly complicated human condition. A simple existence-for-existence drawing, it has nothing to offer the modern citizen. But this life we mock, invented perhaps, of the Neanderthal, whose memory for one hundred and fifty faces, vocations and uses dictates the span of his tribe, it might put a limit to his anxiety as well. His tribe is is world, his direction, you can see it on the horizon.

Mouths aghast when such words are said, on the faces of the facebook generation with the tens of thousands of faces and no clear vocations and uses, the sentient mind of the world-as-community. You savage, they cry: The tribe has no horizon, it is numberless. There is no space left nor is there function. Our raison d'ĂȘtre is to consume then shit ourselves out in smarter, more compact shapes. Our god is pleased with our invention.

This life is no longer simple. Inside human beings there burn the ancient natural calls for birth & death all the same - that we'll begrudgingly acknowledge. But the ever-longing for functional simplicity, for ease and safety that brought us here in this city -- is the one that represses the darker side, it must be repressed because there is nothing left to hunt, nowhere left to go. So we play video-games, and we watch like Americans sports and we fight bloodlessly with words on the internet and we watch televised renditions of atrocity in some faraway land and our destruction is so petty, our small deaths too small, more a sneeze than an orgasm - not even a dream's worth of sleep. We are now no longer animals. We are no longer men and women, we are ideas, our god is logic and in the eyes of this god, what is shameful must surely not exist, must have never existed.

But I feel it, the pull towards Nothingness and the lust for Everything. I want to die a thousand deaths and I want to create a universe of strange life. The dark magic of Heavy Metal to me is not a reminder of petty ideals and citylogic that your excretory grind-core achieves, it is a melancholy reminder of a landscape I have never visited, angles turned into themselves, ancient obsidian monuments carve the cerulean sky. I feel it so well yet my vision is blurry, like in a dream.

There's a woman and a man in me, I know. This world knows nothing, this world that dies every time I close my eyes, I must be imagining it. I will not trust it. Whatever decree your god has for me, whatever killing light he casts inside this cave to illuminate ideas and ideals, there is always a sharp shadow to hide within and imagine everything, askew, wrong, beautiful. In there, the dark dreaming pool, the carnage is shameless and in the winter of its respite, so is love.

Heavy Metal is masculine and feminine. Its surface description is of the latter form. Linear, pummeling riffs, fascist rhythmic dictation, killing thrust. This violence is what attracts us to it initially. But its core is feminine, because it is creative art, it is a genesis of pure emotion. It takes sounds and events and it makes them into something that would have never otherwise existed. What makes us respond to romantic art is this inner tenderness that one must wound and hurt so much to reach. There is the reconciliation of opposites that - I theorize - earlier man, less sentient and less comfortable, would achieve much more simply than the dualist worldbrain we're part of today allows for.

Atrox are a sister band to The 3rd and the Mortal. Their fascinating reflection to their atmospheric metal is warped; Where The 3rd and the Mortal achieved weightlessness and introspection through a very sanded-down and solemn audio sculpture, Atrox push towards a pluralist direction, awash with sight and sound and curious detours into caricature realms.

I remember buying this record after reading a bewildered review of it in a magazine. The reviewer couldn't parse the goings on in "Contentum", but through his description - which he meant to use as means of dismissal - I could see there would be something there for me. Indeed, on my first few listens it clicked instantly and seamlessly with my aesthetic sense and it is with difficulty now that I try to remove myself from it and look from the outside to describe it to you.

This music, I suppose, in this remote mode, is weird. The record cover is lurid with saturation and formless detail, beings of undefinable purpose and sense belong together in chaotic symmetry. The music inside might be upsetting because the singer tends to dance around the linear riffs wildly, almost maniacally at times. As the bird tries to escape the cage, the cage must grow around it in fractal fascination. Little about "Contentum" is straightforward, but not nothing. There's riffs and songs and metal here, but it's what dresses them that's curious.

Some sense can be forced on this curious record if its predecessor is examined. Of a more standard doom/death form, there the female vocals are used in the sedate & usual "beauty and the beast" mode pioneered by Theatre of Tragedy: a very anguished man is screaming prose and between his gasps, an ethereal female voice swims. This is how metalheads want their womanly presence in their metal: sexless and discrete, being told where to interject and with what geisha anecdote.

On "Contentum" there are no tortured male screams. The other difference is the constant melodic leads on both guitar and keyboards that decorate the muscular riffery underneath. This is a braver way to portray a womanly presence in Heavy Metal, one that is fleshed out, not the impossible idealized shadow of femininity but instead a human entity that travels freely from lower to higher strata, unbridled by laws and expectations, rude and playful as it is gracious and skilled. That female voice to me sounds, as it always sounded, like the voice of pure creation.

It's brave to write metal music like this, not only because there is no precedent for it but also because there's a reason there's not any precedent for it. Metalheads are embarrassed by the feminine aspect of their music even more than they're embarrassed by the maso-homosexual implication of being pummeled by riffs: Atrox conjure a space where their accomplished and directed attack seeks to destroy in familiar and pleasurable ways the listener while an impish female ghost witnesses and laughs. I can see why some metalheads were infuriated at the vocal excursions here, they're not discrete. They demand acknowledgment. This streak of manic assertion makes it an intensely female record, and that makes it even more difficult to present to the army of perpetually teenaged-feeling guys that make up the metal hordes. Atrox can be seen as if they're making fun of muscular metal with their vocal histrionics.

However, they're not. Opposites are reconciled through talent, here. For the extremities this record achieves in places, it very rarely feels as if it's pulling itself apart by going in many different directions at once. There's grace and nuance as to the positioning of voices and density. Atrox know what they're doing.

Also let's consider from the outside another reaction to this music, one not of bewilderment and annoyance, but passé and cynical acceptance. "So it's avant-garde metal with a gimmicky singer, Helm. What's the big deal?" It's true that in the essence of avant-garde often is the invention of a gimmick. A good reason why I contest the usage of the avant-garde term in metal music is exactly because metal music is far too constructed to be truly experimental. For every vocal pyrotechnic here, there are equally brilliant and nuanced rhythmic and melodic offerings on other instruments, the music coheres. Atrox achieves a gestalt that has little to do with 'experimental' music and much to do with carefully and conservatively considered compositional technique. Play the voices of almost any song here on a piano, and then compare that material with actual avant-garde music.

So it's an interesting thing to note that 'avant-garde' in metalhead perspective is a music that to outsiders sounds mostly like other metal music. The range of expression expected (and desired) by metalhead audiences is limited. There is a reason for this, it is that sound is only the gateway to something else for the metalhead, it is not the focus itself. Experimentalists of prime sound do not fascinate if they cannot take us where we long to go, in that place where chaos and order are reconciled, dreams of death assuage the modern scars of logic.

I hold what Atrox have achieved here in great respect, and it's one of the few cases I feel a little disappointment that there's been no merited follow-up to it from them or other hopefuls. The track "Ignoramus" here with its confused power-groove and ill-fitting atmosphere sadly suggests the direction that Atrox would take with every successive release. The balance is ruined. The beautiful is also the scary on "Contentum" - intuitive movement, non-directive, fluttering emotion, prone to exhaustive depths or heights, fragile as is strong - it comes from a woman's psyche. There should be more metal music that isn't afraid to show these colours. Euro-metal with washed out Opera singers doesn't achieve this, nor does extreme metal with women gurgling and screaming, pretending to be one of the boys.

True femininity brings terror to those accustomed to sexuality-as-spectacle for in it are carried a thousand desires, not all of them prepackaged and safe. The gamut of wistful playfulness, wanderlust, dramatic disappointment and ultimate melancholy - the emotional range of a teenager of full heart, before the world breaks them with logic, is here. We all know how our heart beats, but we're ashamed of some of it, most of it. When we're brave and enter Heavy Metal with romance in our eyes, we often yet overextend in the anger of destruction. To deny the equal pull towards creation, is to create lifeless monuments to the Nothing. Stillbirth. The risk must be taken, a smile must be carved on the stone - the playfulness and levity of this music stands important exactly because of how grave and serious its intent is to convey all of the psyche is. Life and death, together.


  1. I downloaded and listened to this album before getting into this review and my first impression was that it's stunning! The vocalist reminds me of Jun Togawa (who I also love) in some way yet they have many differences as well. Half the time the music takes me high above the clouds where angels dance and half the time down to hell where succubus dreams of sin and fire. I believe in this one's staying power.

  2. Glad you think so. I don't know Jun Togawa, should I investigate?

  3. Only if you're up for quirky underground-minded synth pop.