Saturday, December 24, 2011
Let's try to do this with small words only.
Small words are lonely. The more they're made from the simplest parts, the more they're surrounded by words made up by sounds similar to them, the more lonely they get because they are lost in a semiotic sea. A word like "extravagance" shines a charismatic light amidst the puny syllables that surround it.
Coroner were a Swiss trio that came about in the mid '80s. They started out playing thrash, similar to German thrashers but perhaps with more fluid guitar bits here and there. With each record they mixed up their thrash until it sounded little like thrash at all. They followed this road to its end in the span of ten years. For a techno-thrash band, they put out a lot of records and for the purposes of this text we're going to deal more with the tra-je-cto-ry than any one record itself.
You see, Coroner have gotten back together. They've been playing around Europe and they've been clear that that's it, there won't be a new Coroner record. I saw them live in downtown Athens a week ago and a lot of big thoughts in big words I've had about them, a lot of in-tu-i-ti-ons have been jolted into place by that show, and their meaning is surprisingly simple.
The reason Coroner do not want to put out a new record is because of said career arch; They're finished and they know it. They did what they set out to do. It's not often a Heavy Metal band starts out with anything but their masterpiece. Coroner started out promising and increased expectations until their end, so it's a good idea for us to examine what it is exactly they wanted to achieve. All that I've got to say about Coroner can be gleaned in my recount of the live show.
Coroner do not move about a lot on stage. The light choices are a cold blue, a bright green and some times, an orange. The blue suits them best, though the orange is good for when they step outside of their pa-ra-di-gm. It is very telling that they brought along a keyboard player to recreate exactly the effects they put in their latter-era music. Coroner aren't half-assing their reunion shows. They want to show exactly how their music was meant to be experienced. This means Coroner are still very proud about their material. They aren't a sloppy middle-age Candlemass doing pub-rock renditions of once mighty Epic Doom Metal hymns. They're playing everything as well as they ever could. This is important.
Coroner's selection from their records is also telling. They played only two standard thrash numbers. "Masked Jackal" was part of the set, and their early opus "Reborn Through Hate" was part of the encore. These choices are apt, because not only are these two songs some of the best thrash metal ever recorded (especially the first track), they're also the only necessary demonstrations of the thrashy side of early Coroner, much to the chagrin perhaps of younger listeners in the crowd, their blood boiling in their revivalist tube jeans and cut off denim jackets. Coroner are very aware of which parts of their work are worth showcasing, and to what extent. Pride again, but also, a desire to convey a progression and an end.
Thrash bits aside, the mood of the rest of the material we saw was consistently bi-polar. This is where I describe what Coroner sound like, in small words. Heavy Metal - and especially thrash metal - has these riffs, see? Riffs are melodic phrases that are played over and over. Riffs are catchy and fun. People like riffs, and they really love thrash riffs because they're very dense in rhythm, they make the body move. By the time Coroner got to thrash, everyone was in competition about who can make the busiest riff. Coroner played this game too, early on, and their method of making riffs busy was to put between chords these beautiful neo-classical scale runs, arpeggios and other flashy guitar pyro. This was a novel idea for a thrash band, and Coroner could have tried to ride it for a longer time. But instead, by the third record, Coroner got to chopping these riffs up into little pieces. The whole of the mother riff is the same complicated, scale-heavy riff they always did. But they no longer play the whole thing in sequence. They break it up to little pieces and instead play the little pieces to death, in a circle. A, B, C, A, B, C, D, A, B, C, A, B, C. Coroner are really tiresome to listen to.
The bi-polarity comes from the solo sections in their music. While the chopped up half-thrash (and this is an important term, historically) riffs are very punishing to the senses to the point of, let's say, a boredom that is close to a trance (like some electronic music), the solo and melody breaks are very fluid and beautiful, full of color and a desire for life. Then it's back to the grind.
This is the style Coroner perfected from record three to five. The voice on top is raspy and rhythmical as well. The bass guitar is usually in lockstep groove with the guitar. The drumming started out typically thrashy, tom roll heavy and busy and by the end of their trajectory, it had become a very very simple kick - snare - crash stomp. The simplest drums you can imagine behind these chopped up riffs. Whereas a band like Pantera grooved with their half-thrash to convey exactly a 'Walk', a macho stomp, muscles taught, beer belly proudly jiggling, confused sexuality and bravado, Coroner groove in reverse, like an external machine, a body on automatic, neverending process. What is it processing? What is driving this machine, and to where? Internal conflicts.
So this is what Coroner sounds like. But what do they feel like? What did they feel like live?
There was a point of synaesthesia which prompted thoughts of this article (and more about how the article is constructed) that is worth conveying. Wait. Smaller words. There was one moment in the show where lights, sound, people around me and my own sense of my body came together and made me think. And I wanted to tell you what I thought. Yes, yes.
Coroner prefaced "Semtex Revolution" with their awkward English "this is a song about feeling paranoid, about terrorists, about looking at the word strangely". Blue lights washed over the stage and people started doing their half-thrash dances (which is really something to enjoy, if you ever find yourself in a techno-thrash concert. The riff meters don't line up, spines are strained!) and words were said over music and it hit me then: this is remarkably lonely. The music is very lonely. People are having some strange type of fun below and they're all together in this room, but in reality what this music is communicating is solitude. Everyone's on their own. We might enjoy the same thing right now, but not all in the same way. This is not a Manowar concert, there are no metal brothers in arms here. This is more modern, actually. Even the people on stage are not playing as one. They're playing the same thing, in lockstep, actually, but they're not becoming one.
Coroner had gone to great lengths to have a very clear live sound. Four people on stage and you could hear exactly what every one was playing. This is important (and rare, oh boy is it rare). It isn't because they play as a unit so much as it is because everyone is playing alone. The lyrics of Coroner songs are also telling.
Let's look at Internal Conflicts, sans the usual italics. These lyrics do not need italics:
"I will crush my skull when I feel like doing it
I will break my bones when I feel like doing it
I will cut my veins when I feel like doing it
I will shred my skin when I feel like doing it
I will smash my teeth when I feel like doing it
I will slash my face when I feel like doing it
But I never will touch you"
People were singing along and headbanging below to this, it was surreal. I was singing along and headbanging to this, seems so strange now. But I was completely alone. I wasn't thinking about whomever it was that drummer and aesthetic leader of the band, Marquis Marky, would never touch. I was thinking of those I will never touch. Diagnosis: Modernity. Solution: Self destruct. Status: Body Destroyed, Brain Intact. Process: Still Thinking.
Then and there, the a-e-sthe-tic choices of Coroner finally clicked for me. Of course the riffs are chopped up and repeated to the point of exhaustion/ecstasy. Have you seen a lonely person move around in their room? A time-lapse of loneliness, perhaps? Of course the lyrics are mantric chants where most of the words are simple and interchangeable. Have you seen an autistic child move back and forth? Of course the solo sections jump out with lust and desire, because in spite of themselves, the autopsy is inconclusive. The corpse still longs to live. Hence, Coroner reunited and toured the world, twenty years late from a ten year career to tell this story again. And why? It's because the follies of modernity have not been assuaged. They never will be. Coroner (the entity, the spectral wisdom behind Heavy Metal), face unknowable, masked with duct-tape and gliding backward towards you in a concrete parking lot, manifested in that live show. There was no dark wisdom passed, there was no ritual blood spilled, there was curiously nothing at all to mark its passing, but at that moment where light and crowd and lyric and rhythm collided, I felt like the teenager Helm again, alienated from a world I thought I understood too well and which misunderstood me totally. I felt as if looking outside a window to a world without a future. I felt as if an atomic bomb might fall and devastate Europe because of a geopolitical sequence inconsequential...
There I go again with the big words.