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I’m Listening to Death Metal #10: Cynic and Bloodbath

cynic focus

I was an arrogant young man. The trite thing to say after a statement like that is that the arrogance hasn’t really faded, and while that’s arguably true, it distracts from the focus on that period in my life and how that arrogance came to bear itself upon the contours of my life. Beyond that, I think arrogance is a natural part of the human psyche. There are more crass and obvious arrogances in the loud-mouth, the intellectualist, the obscurantist, the name-dropper, but there are also the obscured arrogances, such as the martyr and the timid.

True meekness is not itself an arrogance, but mock meekness is.

The worst form of arrogance is being overly apologetic as a means of deflecting the judgment of others, to evade the responsibility of our selfhoods and our actions by making ourselves thin and weak. This kind of arrogance is often presented as healing, but true apology takes a different form, is predicated more on ownership of misdeeds and forthright corrective action rather than a parade of excuses.

My arrogance as a young man was, sadly, a combination of many of these. I was small, and I was wrongly meek, pretending myself put upon for being a frail nerd when in reality I was woefully uncritical of how my behavior drove others away. I was an intellectual, which is true, but often in the presence of others it would become a weapon, and intellect wielded in this way quickly dulls itself, short-selling insight for a quick barb. This cheapens the fruits of the intellect just as it depletes us of them, making us more assured in our wisdom while simultaneously steadily reducing its stores. I was bitter and solipsistic, angry at the social spurning I faced as a young, autistic, traumatized, and mentally ill man while allowing those things to wrongly excuse me for misdeeds I committed out of that anger. This is not to say that our responses to the traumas of being and living, which are induced on all of us albeit unequally, must be responded to merely by turning the other cheek; there are, in fact, times to resist more strongly. But allowing my bitterness to make me petty and catty made me feel like I was feared and strong when in truth, like so many others with such an affect, I was merely an untenable fucking prick.

But life and being also layers and codes us with contradictions. That is the interesting aspect of the psyche; be being not a Physis, a physical body, but instead a meta-Physis, an intangible one, it is no longer beholden to the mechanics of physics but instead the slippery dream logic of metaphysics. People who are grounded deeply in the mechanistic logic forms of physics and analytic philosophy sometimes view metaphysics as a space that lacks rigor and holds no considerable weight. And while this is not untrue in its worst extensions, there is still an undeniable metaphysical heft to thinkers such as Hegel, who predicated his intensely material understanding of the world via dialectic upon the ideal of metaphysical movement that finds itself impossibly challenged by moments such as the Holocaust, an event which resists the ability for a purely dialectical process to insert it into the flesh and flow of history. The mind may be a phenomenological effect produced by the ontological/mechanical meat of the brain, but that perceptive veil in turn influences how the brain and body act, and the mind’s ability to believe two or more contradictory things or believe one thing and act against that belief in another moment offers a wrench at once enlightening and infuriating into purely mechanistic interpretations of psychology.

Despite my frequent usage of intellect as a weapon to regain some measure of perceived lost social clout, a contradiction I held inside myself was that in private, it was an earnest childlike delight. Outside of the prying eyes of others, eyes which I learned in adulthood rarely judged me in the manner I believed instead being an invented pressure I placed upon myself unduly, I would sink deep into the cool waters of research and data. One of the strange benefits of autism is that, in the world of data points, a pointillist pressure upon every axis of the senses, if you can eventually find a tide to swim with, it feels like you are being opened up like a flower. The way data seems to flow into and through you, assemble itself automatically inside of you. It’s a thrilling feeling, like solving a jigsaw puzzle every 15 seconds forever, with every puzzle being a piece to some further insight. It is hard in those moments not to succumb to the childish sentiment that all data is linked into a direct causal chain, one which is self-consistent and generates itself; the world is not quite so neat, but in macro-scale it approaches this sentiment, with curiosities grown like cancer in strange nihilistic tumors of radical anti-thought with their own pocket logics.

To swim those seas, beyond the temptation to do so venomously in a manner that I thought made me look strong but instead made me into an annoying clown, was a deep pleasure.

These two sentiments formed a tight coil in me. They were for a very long time, and likely still are somewhere deep inside of me, the engine that drove me. I had internalized a level of spite that was undoubtedly unhealthy, which would one day lead me to lengthy therapy to begin to unsnare and unravel, but that had formed a combative but symbiotic relationship with my desire to learn, to be let loose in libraries and data centers to absorb what felt like the numinous metaphysical flesh of the secret world. The practice of this compelling tensions was, of course, much more mundane than the interior image; long nights on the Internet researching scurrilous topics, be they philosophical questions or literary critiques or information on the history of a band or an invention or a short-lived micro-nation, stacks of books on obscure topics that would struggle to prove their worth beyond the pleasure of learning, things of that nature. I would tear through the liner notes of albums for new bands to research and new texts to devour to better contextualize work I had heard, work through the bibliographies of books I enjoyed.

At its best, this tension pushed me internally harder than the external world could have. I never would have emboldened myself to pursue philosophy, to work through the novels and stories of James Joyce, or to find some kind of ground to the strange visions I had in my head whenever my senses would overload and the wiring of my autistic brain would short-circuit, producing sober psychedelic fields and hyperbolic holographic layerings of thought and image. There was some rabid pursuit of some kind of ground, any ground, especially since the grounding states of socialization and common culture failed to produce for me what it seemed to so readily produce in other people.

The notion of a dialectic is, of course, ingrained deeply in the cultures of the world. The notion of the weaving of fibers, the alchemical con-fusion of base elements, the fusion of spirits. Possession by demons or angels is a type of dialectic of heaven and earth; the gender binarist notions of sexual mating another. We struggle, of course, to grapple with systems and models that include more than two elements, expanding binaries to continuums and then from continuums to fields and from fields to spaces, to make into calculus what once had been arithmetic and to give lively organic motion to forms that once had been static. To free up the staid symbol-forms of “male” and “female” (or any fitting binary) and embolden them to move across the page in free motion, describing at last their true shapes, which may resemble those initial conceptual forms but may as well take on new and unexpected shapes and develop new and strange and beautiful and terrifying and powerful and mundane relations. A lay understanding of dialectical models is that it pares down information, combines the two into one over and over until there is eventually a collapse to singularity, the unbroken and indivisible radiant perfect nirvanic Godhead restored to reality in Physis and meta-Physis alike. But this is not so; dialectic, being a description of organic relation, generates as much as it destroys and, under the right conditions, generates even more.

This is an underlying thought, whether in these words or in others, of almost everyone who rabidly loves learning, be it for the pure-hearted reason of joy or the rotten reason of malice and condescension. This underlying reason, unfortunately, does not strongly predict usage; we have just as many venomous sophists who learn new information only to wield it as a cudgel against those who they perceive to be beneath them as we do those who breath it like it is the secret breath of the world. But the reason remains. All information is born of this world and all imaginations we can communicate with exist within this world. The religiously-minded may view there being a set of heavens and hells beyond our world, but the theologian would describe that larger set as “The World,” capital letters, with all thought, data, and imagination still residing within it, with the same argument applying to the more fanciful and fantastical science-minded dreaming of alternate realities and multiple worlds.

All data knits together at some end, all psyches can be reconciled to one another even if it takes dozens, hundreds, millions of intermediaries. The world can be woven together and understood, if not by a human consciousness than some meta-mind, a meta-Physis which encapsulates the world, because all data is of the world and is bound at least in portion to some other mote of thought which spurs on its generation. This applies to everything from new recipes in the kitchen and new genres of music to new forms of government, new fruitful psychoses that develop into new fields of art and faiths of the world, and new models of mathematics and physics to understand the brute mechanics of the world around us. Information and thought generates more information and thought, and the meta-Physis of the world and the self seem to expand at a rate faster than time. What matters to many, including myself for long stretches of my life, is riding the tidal motions of this oceanic form of thought without necessary direction or ideal.

I struggled to articulate for years the welding in my heart, the marriage of this impulse and my ardent undying love of death metal.

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Another quirk of autism is that I can see some thought-forms the same way someone might see a table in a room with items on its surface; I may not know everything about those objects, some may be obscured from view, and I may learn my comprehension of them was weaker than I first believed, but the ability to pick them up and turn them about and investigate them comes very naturally. Meanwhile, certain other feels or sensations burn too bright, too close, like a floodlight held up to my face. I know the light is there, I can feel its heat on my lips and my eyes and my neck, but I can’t describe it except in abstract shape, color, sensation. Some things become too deep for me to access the way someone else might, even though we both feel them the same way. There is some synaptic gap that causes me to need to approach them another way, find some manner to harden them, break off small pieces of the experience, the emotion, that internal swell, and to map and chart those individually. There was some connection in my heart between music and these Atlantean kingdoms of thought, the beauty of how humanity constructed the language sets of mathematics and philosophy and theology and sociology and history as a means of grappling with the world and ourselves, how even our inaccurate grasps in the darkness of the world to understand things like how our brains are electro-chemical machines and their own functions and malfunctions can permanently color how we access, interpret, and understand the world can be a disquieting and nihilistic beauty.

Ironically, as someone on the spectrum, art became a second language to me. This is not entirely uncommon, despite the appearances of that space to others outside it. There is a view that it’s more common to gravitate toward things like math and science, hard data that doesn’t require the often stilted and malformed social and psychological understanding that people on the spectrum can demonstrate. And while we’ve gotten better (if not precisely great yet) of understanding socially that people on the spectrum do still indeed have standard human feelings and sensations albeit internalized and externalized differently at times and thus the coldness we associate with autism isn’t precisely true. There is still a greater comfort for many on the spectrum with those more standardized rigid forms; they are, of course, much more plastic to those who wield them than those who don’t. But feelings that a misstep will result in social castigation, the sense of failing the standards of a community or hurting someone unintentionally, seem to occur less often when you are dealing directly with numbers and equations than spaces of humanity and emotion. Art then takes on an intensified dual-function common to every audience member of art for those on the spectrum: abstracting out the emotional data set of a work, be it a painting or a novel or a poem or a song, you can trust the thrust and sway and weave of your heart to resonate in accordance with the harmonies of the work and reveal to you things that you feel and have felt, ways you have internalized events and anxieties and desires, so as to understand this feeling which too often is like a too-bright light held too close to the face.

In turn, you can hand this work to another and say, behold, for this is me, this is a map to my heart, these are the contours of the secret space I struggle to communicate.

There was always this tie within me to art more generally, and I eventually chose to pursue the study and creation of art in college and adulthood over my other childhood joy of mathematics and physics. Philosophy and criticism and theology lived naturally in the space between these two fields, the abstract mediators that help one make sense to the other, forming a dense polyrhythmic dance of isomorphisms and metaphors and transformations to dialectically bridge these two contradicting spaces. By being born of the same world they map similar spaces, and the gaps of one are sometimes filled by the swellings of the other, and even their frictions can feel fruitful. I felt this in my heart more deftly with heavy metal, and of the fields of metal death metal resonated most strongly.

I could not describe this to others; my attempts to articulate it turned either to words that felt sincere and heartfelt in my mouth but sounded arrogant and condescending in practice, or else turned into an overblown hyper-violent farce. The attempt to articulate this sensation, which swelled and wormed within me, failed again and again, even as eventually I began to eke out a position making and writing about art. Drafts of previous attempts lie mouldering in hard drives. The process seemed ineluctable but doomed to failure, bound in paradox.

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I wrote previously in my installment on Atheist that I listened to Unquestionable Presence on loop the night before my SATs, which I arrogantly didn’t study for and arrogantly did not bring a calculator for, trying to prove something to others in an attempt to get them to feel some sense of positivity toward me that I craved, to learn to love me by validating my intellect even though no one has ever loved a human soul merely for being intelligent. But I didn’t only listen to Atheist, whose album would not quite bridge the temporal gap between evening and 6 a.m. by its lonesome. I also was listening to Pestilence, whose albums Testimony of the Ancients and Spheres I still treasure but will not be covering here due to some political grievances with its founder, as well as Gorguts who I covered previously and, perhaps the greatest of those listed here, Cynic‘s then-sole album Focus.

(There is one other album, one other band in fact, that is bound up in this same space for me, but they are best saved for a grander statement, given their inestimable value both to me personally and the genre at large.)

I covered, then, in brief the sensation and joy of Atheist but ellided, intentionally, the greater and more fundamental swell within me that caused me to forego sleep that night…

I was in ecstasy. In a prior chapter covering Tribulation, I discussed my own strange and personal faith, one more praxis than theology. A central component of this is ekstasis, the bringing of the spirit to a fever pitch via ritual and song and meditation. Death metal, at its best, brings me there, feels not so much like an expression of Van Halen-esque hyper-masculinity (though it can be this too at times) but more like the opening of a trap door at the bottom of my soul, a portal at the bottom of the ocean, where on thrusting my face through I burst up through the surface of the water on the other side of the world, in a stranger place. Atheist does this, feels like a feral ecstatic dance, but Cynic does it better. Focus is, for lack of a better word, a perfect album.

It is easy to buy the narrative that Cynic began their life as a much more straightforward death metal act before recording the record, and while there is truth to this, it is less true than sometimes presented. After all, when Chuck Schuldiner tapped the central duo of Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinart to record the seminal seachange of a record Human for Death, they already brought with them the sounds with which we associate Cynic’s debut record. Each of their early demos, now catalogued by a proper archival release after all these years, show songs that would emerge on Focus with their unique blend of progressive rock and jazz fusion intact. The only great change between those earlier demos and the final product was a winnowing, putting death metal more and more on the backfoot compared to their increasing reliance on progressive rock. Perhaps this is why, years later, their comeback record Traced in Air is better viewed as a prog-rock record than even a progressive metal one, let alone death metal. But Focus married those impulses, twined them, into one form. Tracks like “The Eagle Nature,” “I’m But A Wave To…,” and “How Could I” are perfect songs, slices of death metal that married themselves to greater, deeper impulses.

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My arrogance has always been that I want people to see the world as I see the world, experience it as I experience it. That is a great part of why I became a writer and why, outside of these types of spaces, I make art as well. I want to be a virus that casts itself out into the world, a way of thinking, of changing, being a permutating algorithm. Part of this manifests in the darker or at least more selfish side of my rabid desire for knowledge, tearing apart books, spending hours researching nothing upon nothing upon nothing. So when it came time to write essays for colleges over a decade ago, of course I decided to write about death metal. And, as you might imagine, I wrote about Focus in particular.

I could have chosen anything, but I wanted to choose this, to do my best to capture for those far outside it the power and majesty and insight that I get from death metal. There is a curious mental image we associate with art, that it is a micro-sun, shining into us directly via lyrics and art selections. But this is not true; art is, at best, a mirror, a moon, a dead circuit, one that can only resonate and cast back that which is put inside it as much by the audience as by the artist. Focus did not cause some great stellar spiritual insight in me due solely to the fact that the lyrics deal with Buddhist theology and transcendentalist meditations as much as those triggered certain reflections in me, certain avenues of research, and that latent nagging element of Buddhism in me that hasn’t gone away since I was a child and idly investigated it. I wanted to capture that, that not just death metal but all art is a door and not some golden idol, and that the vistas beyond it are internal ones determined more by the cleverness and joyful heart of the practitioner, a practical magic, rather than one determined by the artist’s hand directly.

If death metal were flat, of course, merely producing translucent works such as Cynic’s inestimable Focus, through which I felt I could view every angle of my interior soul as though through a spyglass made of the diamond’s of god’s kingdom, then we would be less intrigued and empowered by it. For as much as groups like Alchemist, Atheist, Cynic, and Gorguts offer these cerebral and spiritual experiences, there is also the substantially more bodily spiritual ekstasis of groups like Bloodbath.

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Bloodbath is a group that is, to put it very kindly, significantly dumber than Cynic, at least when measured by the metric of literary and theological arguments and engagements. This is acceptable and even preferred, however, given that the goal of Bloodbath is not only different than Cynic but precisely its opposite, to ground death metal in the profound somaticism of its earliest practitioners. Cannibal Corpse, Possessed, and Autopsy were not aiming for the mind with their works, and we not only do not penalize those groups for this single-mindedness but treasure and reward them for it. A lesson I struggled with for years, at least mentally, was that there was a value and purpose to a life beyond the mind, that the body mattered both in its pleasures and pains as well as its maintenance.

There is an ecstasy of the body that is separate but no less equal to the ecstasy of the mind, and both are avenues to the spirit.

Too often as someone on the spectrum, I will become enamored with the words that feel so much like they empower me that I do not realize they have stultified me, formed an opaque prison-labyrinth of words that occludes others from me. I do not merely desire but need an anchor to the body, to the immediacy of flesh and experience. Bloodbath is nothing if not direct. And perhaps this is another reason death metal has always appealed to me. It bypasses certain components of the mind, the way great rock music does, throttling my cerebelum with electricity until I am rendered stupid, too stupid to get in my own way. Phrasing that thought this way is sometimes seen as derogatory, but this seems to only be the case with people who have limited experience with being, pardon my arrogance, too smart, where your intellect acts like a psychic cancer or cataract blinding you to something everyone else can see. A common ailment of this is when you know a great deal of information about a great deal of topics but lack common sense and social function; of those listed, the latter two surpass the former in utility and inevitably lead to an easier, kinder life. (Nietzsche has similar negative views about the value of philosophy.) So, the immediacy of Bloodbath, one that not only does not employ the high-minded approaches of some of the more cerebral metal bands out there but in fact was created to deliberately eschew them, becomes quite enticing to me.

I discovered Bloodbath shortly after they released their first EP Breeding Death. I was 11 and had just discovered Opeth and the joys of death metal and was beginning as well to try to appeal to older, cooler friends who were already in high school by becoming more knowledgeable about extreme metal. I discovered Dan Swanö, whose body of work is perhaps the greatest in terms of avant-garde metal of the 1990s, and I discovered Katatonia, who had worked with Åkerfeldt previously on the Brave Murder Day record. Learning that Bloodbath was effectively a reunion of the lineup of that record but with Dan Swanö on drums, was instantly appealing to me.

The EP did not disappoint, offering a blistering 13 minutes of death metal that reminded me more of the raw and bloody death metal of the late 1980s and early 1990s than of the work of Opeth, the only real progressive death metal band I knew at the time. I would follow them as they released their debut album, Resurrection Through Carnage, a record that stands toe-to-toe with any of the best of traditional old-school death metal records before or since. It is fascinatingly unremarkable in that it carries no innovation on it, no unique spin or hook, something that normal frustrates me, but replaces those aspects with some of the most perfect riffs and vocal delivery I have heard in my life. It is no wonder that, following this record, Åkerfeldt would not only temporarily leave the group but begin the long process of winding down the death metal elements of Opeth. Hearing this, it’s hard to imagine that itch as anything less than very well scratched.

In a change of the guard, by the time their second LP Nightmares Made Flesh came out, it was my brother trying to impress me by going heavier and stranger rather than the other way around. By that time, I was neck-deep in both progressive music and extreme metal, not to mention the electronic and punk stuff I was getting into, and had begun at last to outpace my brother musically when it came to playing our instruments. My brother is wired like me and saw this as a delightful challenge and, knowing that I spun the Bloodbath records a lot, picked up their second on the day it was released. We were driving aimlessly through the semi-rural environment of our home county in Virginia, an act any teenager surrounded by farms will immediately recognize, the first time we heard “Eaten.” It is still to this day perhaps the greatest death metal song written, at least by the metric of the greatest crystallization of death metal-for-itself and death metal-to-itself. There is something delightfully Hegelian about it, a death metal song so dumb and so pure that it inverts itself, demands you discuss it in high-minded language in order to underscore how absolutely perfect it is at being confoundingly knuckledragging music.

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Very little of that record sticks with me, sadly, but that track is rightfully regarded as a death metal masterpiece, a perfect example of the inordinate and necessary power of tremendously primitive music. Words don’t do it justice and I won’t seek to butcher it here by putting it through the same verbal blender as other things I have discussed; listen it and you’ll understand.

The return of Åkerfeldt saw a shift in their riffing from slow, gross, and gruesome to the same kind of tech-adjacent death metal riffing of modern-day Cannibal Corpse. The fact that all of the members were currently playing in prog bands began to seep through, not altering the trajectory of the riffs but instead emboldening them to color a bit more outside the lines they had set for themselves with the gruesome primitivist death metal slant of their earlier records. It was also the correct choice; for years, the Unblessing the Purity EP, the one that signalled Åkerfeldt’s return, was not only my favorite release by them but one of my favorite death metal records period. The full-length follow-up The Fathomless Mastery was full of songs of similar power and majesty, feeling at times like the band had listened to a hell of a lot of Immolation, but lacked the punch that four perfect songs in a row did. Still, they were potent and perfectly direct records, aiming for the brain in the way a bullet would or perhaps a sledgehammer as opposed to a poem. Grand Morbid Funeral, their first with Nick Holmes from Paradise Lost on vocals, was a messy record, but one intended more to congeal the group into a new working lineup and confirm to themselves that they still had legs; its followup, The Arrow of Satan is Drawn, is the group’s finest record to date, taking almost self-parodic song titles like “Bloodicide” and “Chainsaw Lullaby” and welding them some of the most ferocious and powerful HM-2 death metal imaginable.

This produces a paradox in me. It would be one thing if I simply liked Cynic and Bloodbath for different reasons. The self contains multitudes, after all, and only an idiot is shocked that they like candy and a well-cooked meal; few things in this world contradict each other in the manner we sometimes think they do, and even morality is more comparing a sequence of unlinked events, actions, and decisions rather than a single sliding bar for how good or bad someone is. Yet they are not oppositional joys brought about in me by these two groups but the exact same, each filling me with an arrogant scorn for the other.

When Bloodbath plays, the walls of books and texts that surround me feel gaudy and ostentatious, useless knick-knacks that bring me no closer to the golden inside, especially when compared to brutal physical ecstasy of rage and sex and power.

When Cynic plays, this sensation seems brutish to me, denying the effervescent power of dancing in air, weaving constructs from nothing, surrounding to the waters of reality, etc.

Each press me psychically into domains where words fail; they both are, in my deeply imagistic autistic mind, fields of color and symbol that collapse to dust when explained, both purely experiential realms. This is perhaps their dialectical union, that it is by the overwhelming force of experience that they both erupt to the same place, my center. The perfect prog riffs of “Textures” or that tremendous close to “How Could I” inevitably deliver me to the same spiritual center as “Blasting the Virginborn” and “Fleischmann.” Each presents to me not only their own virtues but also the real shortcomings of its opposite. The better way is not one of absolutism but of the melding of the two, an alchemical fusion, one that induces both that tremendous physicality of death metal and while also maintaining the bizarre, potent, psychedelic cerebralisms of death metal.

Many records I’ve discussed over the chapters of this project can be loosely clumped on this axis, with works such as Morbid Angel’s Formulas Fatal to Flesh leaning toward the physical, while others such as Morbus Chron’s Sweven lean further toward its high-minded psychelia. There is, of course, a dialectical meeting point of these two, a synthesis that at least produces an object that is fully one just as it is fully the other. Records that I would associate with this middle are some that I have discussed thus far, such as Ulcerate, as well as some I haven’t, such as Portal and Demilich. Around these groups and about this axis swirls when I believe to be the thesis of this project overall. Contradiction, collapse, dialectic, the war in my heart between my mind and my body which only ever partially and imperfectly reconciles, my better and worse selves in combat, the plane of immanence accessed by the ecstasies of art, faith, religion, and physical sensation, the way death metal — above all else — is the blade and the key and the book and the bell, the sacred tree with roots and limbs uniting hell and heaven into the somatic body of the earth and me.

Langdon Hickman is listening to death metal. Here are the prior installments of his column:

I’m Listening to Death Metal #1: Opeth
I’m Listening to Death Metal #2: Atheist
I’m Listening to Death Metal #3: Ulcerate
I’m Listening to Death Metal #4: Gojira
I’m Listening to Death Metal #5: Tribulation
I’m Listening to Death Metal #6: Morbus Chron
I’m Listening to Death Metal #7: Pissgrave
I’m Listening to Death Metal #8: Morbid Angel
I’m Listening to Death Metal #9: Gorguts

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