Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bethlehem - Dictius Te Necare

Released by Red Stream in 1996

Rainer Landfermann : Vocals
Kläus Matton : Guitars
Jürgen Bartsch : Bass
Chris Steinhoff : Drums

Let's say a 'musical instrument' is defined by the sound it makes when manipulated. Where does the sound come from? Though the actual physics of sound are complicated, let's say that the conjured sound that comes from this manipulation does not originate in the human playing the instrument, instead it originates from within the instrument itself. Wherewithin exactly? Let's say it is in the exact center of its mass, in its absolute core. For us humans, that core would be the place you feel that burning, fluttering sensation when you're on the verge of action. Remember that feeling? Right at the edge, the precipice of life? That is the feeling of being alive, and in a carved piece of wood with strings over it, music is the same: a conjuration of life in the inanimate. The first man who hit one piece of wood with another felt as much. From these sounds came thoughts, and the thoughts, as modulated through the pitch of the imagination, became meanings.

Modern electronically-augmented music, in this context, is a misleading. A piece of machinery is manipulated by the human, and the sound is carried to a displaced location through wiring, reproduced and treated by a disembodied signal processor and amplifier. The thing itself, the object in the hands of the musician doesn't produce the end signal, it translates intention as a secondary degree of separation: a conduit of a conduit. Through this muddling of the signal, through this broken telephone, we achieve inspiration. We are used to this now, but please consider the world in a stupider, more primal way for me, just for a second.

I stand to your left and strum my electric guitar. My amplifier far to your right lets forth a resonant, distorted chord. You look at me, and my hands, but the sound comes from somewhere else. Isn't it ridiculous? Let's say the amplifier is at a very low volume, don't I look silly toiling at my mechanical erection only to summon forth those tiny, displaced cricket sounds? There is something there, some would call it dishonesty, some would call it a subversion. Let's consider that now I am attacking my instrument with renewed fervor, I am bending the strings, grinding them on the frets, I am making guitar-player grimaces, I am sweating. We turn the amplifier up until the whole room resonates. What physicality, you think. Yet the sound of my labor doesn't connect to my body, the weight, the violence of it is meta-physical. I am entering your mind, I am burning your soul, and I haven't touched you - I haven't even touched the sound that I am using to do this to you.

Let's now kick me and my amp out of the picture and consider a Heavy Metal song in its entirety, as experienced by the listener in their privacy. The stereo sound space is packed with information, meticulously crafted and placed in the range by a recording engineer and the band. There's often multiple clones of the guitarists playing on the far left and right of the field, some dry and in-your-face, some farther away and dampened by room acoustics of a room that doesn't exist. The drum set, whose physical location in the studio session was centered in a three meter cubicle, now spans the wide stereo range, the toms in a amphitheatrical radius around the listener's brain. Lead guitars appear suddenly, cutting right in the middle, competing with a chorus of singer-clones, or they instead are barely felt tens of meters away, deep in a nearby cave, reverberating ghastly. Keyboards rumbling low in the ground or perhaps instead high in the celestial heavens, black stars in the sky and flashes of bright thunder. What a stage that is, right? Absolutely impossible, improbable, sublime. How little it has to do with how the performers looked when they engaged their conduits-of-a-conduit in the recording session. Sometimes one at a time, playing to a click track. Sometimes their performances replaced in part or in whole by triggered electronics, their inputs stripped bare of nuance and error, only the binary intention left: a note appears here, or else there is silence here. This is how music crosses the Rubicon from the world of the living flesh, to the elysian fields of memory. This is how music dies to become perfect. The memory of its physicality remains an alluring connection to our experience, yet it has become spectral, intangible. It can never again be contained, scrutinized, dissected, like a physical effect. Do you know that even musicians forget how to play their songs some time after they've recorded them?

Heavy Metal is part of a long lineage of electronically augmented musics to embrace this paradox of meta-physicality. Whereas its spirit hearkens back to that primal state of "hitting the instrument so it may channel", its sound design is resolutely modern and programmatic: how can we place these disparate performances in a wholly invented sound field so as to conjure imaginative and inspiring vistas? How can we use the sound pool, the prime material to encourage the listener to tell a story that is more than the sum of the parts of the recording session?

When I listen to Heavy Metal I very rarely imagine a bunch of sweaty dudes in a room playing something, the sound coming from them or even from the instruments in their hands. I do not imagine physical human beings at all. It is therefore very odd to me, often disappointing, when I go to live shows and hear music that I've been intimate with for sometimes decades and I see these people play it out as if it's some kind of song, played on a couple of guitars and a drum kit. The older I get, the more I've been able to pinpoint this source of disappointment, and the more it's keeping me away from live shows. No matter how perfect the performance of the musicians in respect to the recorded material, it can never be perfect enough, for I still see it in front of me performed by musicians. The perfect state of (most, not all) Heavy Metal music is far away from human hands and instruments plugged in to amplifiers and PA systems, the perfect state of Heavy Metal is meta-physical, beyond life, a mirror to death. A bridge between lonely sentience and natural grace. Have you ever wondered why there's so many Heavy Metal album covers where there's a levitating guitar, sometimes set on fire, sometimes struck by lightning, once or twice coming out of an Albion lake, not a handler, a human in sight?

Heavy Metal knows itself, and even as it tries to perfect itself (=to kill itself) it rebels to that same process (it wants to stay alive). It levitates in the middle of the journey, it tries to have it all. That is what is most alluring about it, the headless statue that through chaos probability may magically find its head, the living who is dead. There is the violence of Heavy Metal - it has nothing to do with worldly pursuit of power, it has everything to do with to live and die at once. Breathing corpse. Beautiful & grotesque, morbidly angelic, a dream of death.

What there is to feel in Bethlehem's music can be found in the sound design of "Dictius Te Necare". You've probably heard a million different bands playing their variations of angry rock music by now, but please, return to that stupider, more primal state for a few seconds more and listen as if it's the only thing you've ever listened to. Classify the metaphysics of this with the urgency of survival. Beyond the obvious malice and menace of the screaming head, levitating high and low, laughing, weeping mumbling endlessly, there are other signifiers. Listen behind and around it. Dry, linear tremolo riffs abruptly giving away to open spaces where little happens. Stop thinking about this as entertainment, stop trying to have an opinion, a characterization that will make the incessant screaming head safe. You don't have to like it or dislike it, it isn't art, it isn't made by human beings, it is instead like the the stone, like a tree. It is there and what you do with it is imagine.

Amidst guitars and reverberated battery, the sound of fountain spring, few melancholy notes listlessly linger. The accusation towards Bethlehem of making music that sounds premeditatedly insane is a surface one, for those that can only hear the screaming head and cannot parse what it is saying. There are as many colors and movements here as there are inside any romantic art, though the value and meaning of them is dark. Whenever we most closest to a meaning, the band seemingly gives up, they run away at different directions, leaving behind distant murmurs or perhaps a lonely guitar playing little queen codas to nothing.

I do not know how many songs there are on this record, or what it is that separates one of them from the next. I have never listened to it in part, on purpose, nor do I have any favorite sequences I could point you towards as indicative of the benefits of it as entertainment. My mind rebels at trying to describe it, even. What I can tell you is that it took a long time to accept this music as it is, to look behind the screaming head. This achieved, what I am left with is a space that feels my own and yet alien. Listening to "Dictius Te Necare" for me is a dark walk outside on the inside... is it worth it to describe something so ingressive as if it's not? What would happen then?

Let's return to our smarter, modern, more self-aware mindsets now and see. The scientist has to say from his reductionist outlook and his Aristotelian tool set that this is made from riffs, common song structures, relatively safe minor melodies and common rock beats. There's even parts that sound like Iron Maiden and Scorpions. It is methodically robust, like most extreme metal, it is even conservative in structure. And yet, that screaming head, none of its choices make any sense. Could it be that it didn't make choices? It feels as if the band captured this person from the street, gave them the lyrics sheet and pressed record and this man cut off his head and let all the hateful blood jet out coldly, all at once, no grace or taste in it at all. Here are your “lyrics”, gents. Every word uttered perfectly, yet its all so wrong, the cadences out of time and the rhymes unfinished. This I believe to have been malice against the scientist, intentional and clear. If it is something Bethlehem did not want their music to be, is safe and enjoyable for the reductionist that pacifies everything with knowledge. Wrestling with art, armed with a scissor will always result to its wielder winning, but at what cost? When all the weird has been cut off for logic to add up, we're looking at the hands beating the instrument and saying how beautiful is the sound we have chosen out of it. If it was a matter of choice, there would be no instrument involved, music would be an academic thesis, printed and distributed but never felt in the space beyond space.

But that's not what we do with music. If "Dictius Te Necare" has a meaning, it's difficult to tie down. It's very lonely, but I am not lonely when I listen to it. It is dark, but it does not drive me to depression when I engage it. It is demented but I am saner and my focus more crystallized when I experience it. This is what romantic art does with the ghastliest of sources and it's how it's often misunderstood: the end result is of inspiration and imagination, not of impression and subjugation. What resonates, the quality to seek is not in values and ideals conjured but the space that's left sparse to wander.


  1. Great record and a PHENOMENAL singer. It's fascinating.. The image of a cut off head you get from this.. Because the vocals makes me think of those flaming skulls from the good old DOOM 3D. A spirit floating around in an empty space, trapped in horrible existence, hissing and screaming in agony. Always restless, always on the edge, never at peace..

    BTW do you happen to grasp what is that thing on the album cover? I have the ostra records reissue with different cover art and it's hard to say from these small pictures on internet.

  2. It's an emboss filtered drawing of a bone dragon, as far as I can tell!

    The singer is the bassist for cult death metal band Pavor, I guess you already know this.

    The Lost Soul (official name for that Doom enemy) comparison is apt!

  3. Always thought this record was just a not-so-subliminal suicide bomb, which is why I never listened to it when it was released, much less now. One of the genuinely "scary" bands out there.

    Does the title have a Roman origin, i.e. a deeper context, or is it "just Latin?"

  4. It's romantic metal at its core, it's not any more suicidal than reading Byron. As in, talk of self-destruction as means of empowerment instead of admittance of the oncoming end. The screaming head and the photographs of bass guitarist and composer shooting up heroin sadly took publicity in a different direction. Not to mention "Gummo".

    I have no information on the origin of the record, I lean towards "it's just latin" but it wouldn't be the first time Bethlehem has shown suprising depth in that department.

  5. *origin of the name. I should proofread more.

    Also I neglected to mention in the text how a very simple +3dB mixing choice in the favour of the vocals here is 'to blame' for the record's characteristic immediate assault: Had the record been mixed more evenly, with the vocals less up-front, it'd be immediately less scary. One needs only listen to their debut "Dark Metal" to figure this.

    Bethlehem were counting on the screaming head to make a lasting impression and they achieved this: this record is infamous in metal and non-metal circles for it, and it got cultural outsiders to pay attention, much like Burzum did with their early screaming head material. However, to appreciate this record I do believe it's necessary to listen to something else besides the loud vocals on top.

    After it stops being scary, it stops being impressive as-a-thing-in-itself, but it starts being useful, like great Heavy Metal does.

  6. But Byron --- and the rest of the "metaphysical" poets --- make me want to kill myself. If this is romantic, I'll stick with lust.

  7. Your taste is your taste but yes it is romantic. Everything is metaphysical, even sodomy :)

  8. Hey, I never said sodomy wasn't metaphysical!

  9. Let it be noted for all future argumentation that we have achieved this common ground.