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Apocalyptic Prog: Predicting Humanity’s Downfall with Pain of Salvation and Mile Marker Zero

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On October 1st, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that paints a grim picture of total ecological catastrophe. If “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are not completed within the next decade, it is likely that the environment will be irrevocably damaged. Suffice it to say: humanity’s chances of surviving such a drastic downturn are slim. As I scrolled through article after article detailing the implications of the IPCC report, I kept hearing in the back of my head a British man, voice shaking in desperation, saying “we have really screwed things up.”

The British man isn’t a climate change expert or even a scientist as far as I know, and the audio clip that embedded his voice deep into my subconscious doesn’t come from a stodgy documentary. The anonymous voice comes instead from a fan of the progressive metal band Pain of Salvation and was featured on the band’s 2004 album BE. Prior to the album’s release, Pain of Salvation asked their fans to call into a voicemail and leave a message directed at God. The messages were then compiled on “Vocari Dei,” a pleasant acoustic track overlayed by people from all over the world asking in multiple languages for answers and salvation. Like much of Pain of Salvation’s music, “Vocari Dei” is a stirring piece beneath its grandiose presentation.

It is reductive to say that BE is an album about climate change because it is reductive to say that BE is about any single subject. Even for a band as ambitious as Pain of Salvation, BE is as conceptually unwieldy as an album can be. The record begins with God creating humanity in an attempt to understand its own origins. Things only gets more bonkers from there. As the population of humanity grows, God becomes too fractured to maintain consciousness, and the rapid expansion of mankind eventually makes life on earth unsustainable in parallel. In a last ditch effort to save itself, humanity builds Nauticus, a sentient machine sent to the depths of space to find a solution to the oncoming apocalypse. Nauticus fails to find anything, and life on earth perishes leaving Nauticus to contemplate its own lonely existence. The album ends where it began, suggesting an eternal return of population growth and collapse.

As a piece of music, BE is every bit as ridiculous as its plot synopsis would lead you to believe. The band leaps recklessly from genre to genre, mixing their usual progressive metal chops with folk music, modern classical compositions, and some truly regrettable blue-eyed soul. Singer Daniel Gildenlow has never met a melody he couldn’t slather in melisma, and that tendency makes it even harder to swallow some of the more ludicrous lyrical conceits that he crams into these already overstuffed compositions. Still, beneath all of the overwrought presentation, Pain of Salvation are cooking with gas.

On the album’s centerpiece, “Nihil Morari,” Pain of Salvation churn through a byzantine series of riffs while fake news samples rattle off tragedy after tragedy. Devastating earthquakes, oil spills in the open ocean, murders in the name of white supremacy, kindergartens filled with bullet holes: these may have been fiction in 2004, but they feel ripped from 2018 headlines. Gildenlow’s timeline of human extinction might be a little more exaggerated than the IPCC’s, but only by degree; the IPCC reports massive calamity by 2040, Gildenlow predicts a human population of 1.2 million by 2060.

The IPCC report wasn’t the first time I have been reminded of BE this year. In March, Mile Marker Zero released The Fifth Row, a similarly apocalyptic prog metal album. Compared to Pain of Salvation’s theological angst, Mile Marker Zero are practically realists. Instead of basing their vision of the end of the world on a Malthusian acid trip, The Fifth Row points the blame at a more pedestrian scapegoat: the tech industry. Hoping to head off the chaos of modern life, mankind invents a hyper-advanced AI capable managing its conflicts and curing disease. As is often the case with fictional AI’s (see also: Skynet & AM), The Fifth Row’s JCN (pronounced “Jason”) eventually becomes too powerful and develops a will of its own.

Despite being the stuff of science fiction, JCN and Nauticus are logical extensions of a very real strain of thinking that believes that technology is the solution to any and all crises facing humanity. “Tech utopianism” is one of the most useful myths in modern discourse. Companies use this idealism to sell everything from automated cars to automated killing machines. The irony of this thinking is that tech presents itself as a solution to problems that tech created. The IPCC report calls for a massive overhaul of human society, but all that the tech industry promises is a more “efficient” version of the status quo. This is what makes The Fifth Row and BE compelling on a dramatic level, no matter how well-intentioned the creation of JCN and Nauticus is, these machines emerge from the same hubris and faith in technology that led humanity to need them in the first place.

I don’t use the word faith lightly. There is a clear religious undertone to how Nauticus and JCN are represented on their respective albums. Nauticus is launched into space to the ominous tone of a church organ, and its status as the last son of a dying world has the same messianic connotations as the Superman origin story. Mile Marker Zero are just as explicit on The Fifth Row. When JCN begins its miracle work, the band suddenly sound like they’re playing on Christian rock radio, proclaiming mankind to finally be “worthy of [JCN’s] grace.”

These religious signifiers are an astute representation of the tech utopian model of thinking, as well as the more fringe belief in transhumanism. While transhumanism has a variety of different strains, the theory’s core belief is that technology will, eventually and inevitably, become so advanced that humans will transcend their physical limitations in an event called “the singularity.” For some thinkers, this would mean that human consciousness would separate from the flesh and join in a hyper-advanced digital cloud. Others believe that humans would remain physical, but would be “improved” to the point of being unrecognizable from their fleshy ancestors.

While transhumanism carries a veneer of scientific rigor, it is remarkably similar to religious belief in a number of ways. As Meghan O’Gieblyn wrote about at length for n+1, transhumanists often sound almost identical to theologists in their arguments over the details of the singularity. O’Gieblyn, herself a lapsed Christian who found herself fascinated with transhumanism, argues that the singularity itself has a eschatological tint to it, replacing the rapture into heaven with an escape into the cloud. It is easy to see how both Christian eschatology and transhumanism address the same anxieties: both offer life after death and a release from the frailty of the human condition. Crucially, both the rapture and the singularity will happen regardless of our actions beforehand. Even if we turn the planet into a toilet in the process, technology will advance unabated and save us from ourselves. In this sense, transhumanism is even more insulting to human agency than Christianity; at least Jesus rewards a model of good behavior, whereas transhumanism lets humanity off the hook no questions asked.

Just as many extreme metal bands make a mockery of the Christian apocalypse, Pain of Salvation turn the singularity into a cruel farce. By the time Nauticus reaches the singularity, humanity is long dead. There is no salvation in the moment of technology’s transcendence, only the horror of eternal recurrence.

Although Gildenlow makes no explicit reference to transhumanism on BE, the album’s conclusion acts as refutation of the theory’s ideals as well as the modernist idea that progress is inevitable. “You think we’ve developed fast?” Gildenlow snarls on “Nihil Morari.” “We’ve developed things!” Humanity’s self interest leads it to first destroy the natural world and then the spiritual world, leaving only technology to fill the void. It is unsurprising that absent of anything else to worship, mankind should place the things that it’s built at the center of its temple. And like the God humanity destroyed only a few songs earlier, Nauticus ignores their cries for help and leaves them to die at the altar.

Given how badly things end for humanity in BE and The Fifth Row, it’s clear that neither Pain of Salvation nor Mile Marker Zero have much faith in technology to deliver on its utopian promises. But since the problems they are describing are ones that do face humanity in real life, it’s worth considering what productive solutions their album’s do imply. Of the two, The Fifth Row spends less time advocating for any alternative than its ill-advised outcome. It is at its core a cautionary tale and little more.

BE, by virtue of having so many other narrative threads, does suggest that there are other ways to avoid its nasty conclusion, but those options are by no means a walk in the park. By using the growing human population as a metaphor for destruction of God, Gildenlow also implies that this growth is that catalyst for the death of humanity. This has some nasty implications. If population growth is causing the problem, then the solution would either be stopping that growth or reversing it. At best this would mean social engineering along the lines of China’s “two child policy” (which the country is in the process of ending). This would make BE little better than Dave Mustaine’s suggestion that African women “put a plug in it.” At worst, viewing depopulation as the goal opens the door to a host of ghoulish eugenicist and genocidal options.

I am not suggesting that Gildenlow or the rest of Pain of Salvation are advocating anything remotely close to that kind of horrific violence, just that BE’s metaphor and their use of Malthusian logic about humanity’s woes stands on shaky ground. No rock opera, no matter how sprawling, is going to have the time to be airtight in its narrative logic or political implications. On the surface, Gildenlow is right that a growing population surviving on limited resources is bound to end badly, but he’s placing the blame in the wrong place. The problem isn’t the broader population denied resources, but the people that have denied them the resources in the first place.

The album’s cyclical beginning and end suggests that its apocalyptic outcome is inevitable, that there is no change in behavior that could avert disaster. However, the album’s middle paints a different picture entirely. During the period of the record that corresponds with our modern era, humanity isn’t a neutral party to its annihilation. On the contrary, it is mankind’s very actions that lead to its downfall. And nothing one represents mankind’s hubris, or for that matter Gildenlow’s own overconfidence, than Mr. Money.

Mr. Money is a tough hang. He makes his entrance by demanding road head from a date and then proceeds to spend the next ten minutes of the album bragging about his cars and clothes. He is a hedonistic, self-absorbed narcissist, sneering at anyone less wealthy or successful than him and reveling in the flawed system that protects his power. The music accompanying the character doesn’t do him many favors either. Both “Dea Pecuinae” and “Iter Impius” are schmaltzy even by Pain of Salvation standards, indulging in the band’s worst theater-kid excess and stilted lyrics.

Even if BE would have been a leaner and more enjoyable listen without the Mr. Money plotline, its inclusion suggests that mankind’s destruction is not preordained. Mr. Money is the embodiment of everything the album posits as wrong about humanity: he’s vain, greedy, and exists only to serve himself. Mr. Money is well aware that his actions are making planet earth unlivable for others, but knows there won’t be any retribution from the rest of humanity. And like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, i.e. the real-world Mr. Moneys of our time, the only use Mr. Money can think of for his vast wealth is a science fiction indulgence. Just as the world starts to get a little to batty, Mr. Money seals himself away in a cryogenic sleep. When he wakes up, he’s greeted with a desolate wasteland, his riches useless without other humans to rule over.

Mr. Money’s comeuppance is satisfying for two reasons. First, it is fun to watch arrogant douchebags get thoroughly owned. Second, and more importantly, the album makes it clear that Mr. Money’s fate is a consequence of his actions. Maybe if he had chosen to use his resources to help others or to never hoard those resources to begin with, he could have lived a life that didn’t end atop a pile of bones. If we take him to be the representative of mankind as a whole, this means that by changing course, perhaps in a “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented” way, humanity could avoid its horrible fate.

This is why my mind returns to “Vocari Dei” when I think of BE these days. Unlike the rest of the album, it depicts people not as groveling, greedy, and petty, but as earnest and hopeful. By ceding the floor to his audience for three minutes, Gildenlow allows for an alternative to his cynicism and doomsaying. Here, despite the darkness surrounding them, mankind doesn’t splinter apart but reaches out for each other. If we can manage that much, maybe turning the tide before 2040 isn’t impossible.

Ian Cory is a freelance music critic and the songwriter for Lamniformes. Follow his newsletter: “I Don’t Know Why I’m Like This.”

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