The Endless Convulsing of Death’s Upheaval
Metal, when wholly composed by a sole musician, functions as an artistic inroad to the deeper "self" of another human being. Experiencing the vision of a collective is inherently different than experiencing the vision of one: what's special about the solo artist is that nothing impedes their vision for the truest expression of their individual desires, fears, hopes, and miseries. At first, this sounds like a blessing. Free creative reign, total control, full artistic input -- these things may all be true/real, but they come laden with demons. Nothing is free. Malicious self-doubt, lonely disparagement, tunnel vision -- these things wreak havoc upon the process of creating art alone, and therefore the art itself. Pain goes into metal not only because metal expresses pain thematically (especially doom and black metal), but because there is actual pain going into metal. It hurts even to express it, sometimes. As a writer, too, sometimes it hurts to write.
I came upon the music of Brendan Sloan (writing under project name Convulsing) during the ascent of wild and tumtulous arc in my life. The arc has finally piqued now, though a new and probably-just-as-terrifying arc is beginning. What makes Sloan's music special for me is that it has reverberated within me during both sensational highs and extreme lows along the way -- likewise, he expresses himself through a duo of eviscerating black metal and trudging doom. But it's not just the genre blend itself which explains the project's multidimensional impact: it's how effortlessly, stylishly, and unpretentiously these two death/pain/suffering-laden styles are woven together into something which sounds utterly bespoke. Not only is each Convulsing release (two full-lengths and a split so far) standalone in its individual style and progression, they themselves are bridged together as a grander narrative arc.
"Errata was the start of everything falling apart, 'Engraved [on Bleached Bone]' was the middle of it, and Grievous is the end of it," Sloan says, talking about a life arc of his own and referencing Convulsing's musical arc which began with the death of his grandmother. This death in Sloan's life had profound, defining impact: death, not just a subject but an entity unto itself, exposes its pitch-black void, and even a glimpse of it can reverberate throughout the remainder of your life. "I was having an extremely shit time being alive, so I seized my opportunity and used the context to compel myself to write. Convulsing is basically just an effort to understand myself and create something that truly represents a moment in my life."
He was the last one to see her alive; it revealed to him his own mortality and the impermanence of things which feel so permanent in life. As an artist, he reflected upon his own work up to that point, realizing that he did not have anything to truly show for it. Not just the creation of music as a collective project, but music itself violently extracted from deep within one mind (or one soul). For Sloan, this was the artistic expression of death, from death -- not necessarily the fear of dying, but the acknowledgement of death's weight sui generis.
"My Grandmother was responsible for my early musical life, supported and nurtured it in me, and died without ever hearing the fruits of that labour," Sloan explains. "I live with that burden now, and it underpins this project at its core; she's memorialised by all three works."
Death is not just an occurrence or process; death has roots which grow underneath your surface unfettered. And death actually "lives" in our lives: funerals come right along with marriages and baptisms. We attempt to manage death like a social institution, defining it wholly as such in the process. We proceduralize it, structure it, and even plan it out. That's humanity doing the best we can do, all we can do. But some people on Earth just need to break away from this massive amoeba of humanity to do more. The fear of death can withhold our ambitions and starve our personalities, it can cause massive existential grief and intense loathing; one can face death without fear, and one channel may be art. Mine is writing; Sloan's is as well.
"I don't fear death, or dying. It is however upsetting because it's the point of no return, where nothing you've done or will do can save you. Good people die, bad people die, the elderly die, children die. It's ubiquitous and merciless. It's pointless to fear it because apprehension won't stave it off. Fear should be reserved for the cause, not the result," Sloan says.
"I guess my only real fear in that vein is losing control, being completely helpless. Death is an imperative to me, I guess. Do something fucking meaningful with the breath you've been given or you'll have contributed nothing, to nothing, for no-one, when it escapes you. Art 101: leave a mark even if nobody sees it."
Sloan just had to lay something immediate, present, and absolutely visceral to tape: not just music, but death itself given life anew by an incessantly bursting artistic spirit. To define oneself through art is to champion over death like a warrior of the world. "It's an impossible task to cram all of what makes me up as a person, or even just what has influenced me as a musician, into a piece of art, but that's what I'm trying to do. Hold up something to the world and say, 'you made me make this.' I can kind of hear that through Errata, it reminds me of what my life looked and felt like as I was making it. I can remember where and when I wrote and recorded each part of it," Sloan says.
Errata's strengths indeed derive from Sloan's impermeable honesty with respect to both life and music: as a debut, this album bled wholeheartedly and profusely, with standout tracks like "Dis" and "Invocat" absolutely crushing doom and black metal tropes into the darkest of atmospheres, and then layered out onto a story-like latticework of savage, well-arranged riffing. Sloan's style dismisses sheer precision for something, again, more honest: the industrial, mechanical, maniacal grit of his signature-sounding guitar tone conjoined with harrowing, throat-ruining bellows from his gut. There's technicality present for sure, but it's neatly embedded within the music's atmosphere, i.e. this riffs aren't for showmanship, these riffs are for tearing you apart.
A year later, Sloan took Convulsing a step further: condensing/distilling album-like narrative into a 20-minute behemoth of a track for a Siberian Hell Sounds split. "Engraved Upon Bleached Bone" exposed Sloan's more chaotic side, exploring greater speed and layering with respect to the drums and guitars (overall, sounding more put-together), but also the depth of his songwriting artistry. The track feels twice as long as it is -- its density is remarkable to say the least. Sloan nails the black metal ascents toward blast-laden climaxes (multiple times in this song, for solid songwriting measure), and lows are just as harrowing, immediate, and intense. The power of ambiance. The power of silence. The power of death. These are all utilized, expressed, and molded by Sloan's internal vision.
meek light extinguished
cruelly stolen, put to embers
by sleight of hand, in whispers
in shadow and illusion
a litany of hollow words
ephemeral as a cold wind
vanishing into the aether
i am death, look upon me and despair
Death is almighty and constant and machine-like and will never stop and cannot be stopped. Fear, in this setup, is innate, though you can certainly choose to reject it, or fight it. But this means coming to terms with life, i.e. death's predecessor. You begin to recognize the emptiness of language -- the thin walls of the balloons of support offered from good, well-meaning hearts -- and it coalesces into void and nothing but void. I'm different from Sloan -- I do fear death, and perhaps haven't encountered it as closely as he has -- I envy his strength in the face of what I consider an unconquerable monster whose weaponry far surpasses my mental and existential defenses. I envy his ability to invoke death's breath through extreme noise. I envy the pain, even though every part of me knows I shouldn't. Sloan's music may jam hard (especially his latest work, which is super-heavy), but every second is also an inward, personal moment translated for you, the listener. The understander.
Most recently, Sloan moved to a new city to begin a new life two weeks prior to releasing his latest album on his 28th birthday (August 22nd).
"Grievous doesn't have an explicit narrative, but I guess you can think of it like the stages of grief. A few events (personal life, job) around June 2017 left me feeling briefly relieved, but that relief faded quickly into confusion and lack of purpose, betrayal, anger, misery, etc. I began working on Grievous because I felt like I had nothing left; my art was the closest thing I had to a direction. Each track is a different manifestation of that time, and by the end of the process, I guess I'd come to accept that I'd need to find a new equilibrium," Sloan says.
Somehow, musically, it feels like it has all culminated here on Grievous: the fuel of Errata and the engine of "Engraved Upon Bleached Bone" working in unison to continue the story from the genesis of Convulsing: the death of Sloan's grandmother. Death, if conceived as a story rather than a point, changes shape and becomes malleable. We can affect it through emotion and we can affect it through art; screaming, here, becomes almost the obvious choice. Sloan's voice, on that note, has progressed/developed -- whereas before his vocals may have felt prototypical/experimental, here on Grievous they feel more aggressively courageous. On an album so monstrously bleak, Sloan's voice battles through the chaos to howl most mightily, defining a sonic void, an artistic representation of death itself.
"This time around the vocal performance is as honest and affected as I could manage. For instance, 'Were''s vocals were recorded in one take, with no prep, and almost completely improvised lyrics. What you hear is what came out when I hit record. I used glossolalia for 'Relent' as a writing strategy (i.e. I recorded a take of utter nonsense, just making the noises I wanted to hear and where, then wrote lyrics to hit those beats) and I was going to do it again for 'Were,' but instead I just spat all that out of nothing," Sloan says.
And so the void speaks and in an unheard language, that of a sole breather.
"That's what I mean about capturing context. That's as real as it gets. I just want to be able to listen to Convulsing material and think 'that's all I had to offer.' Had, past tense. I'll always think 'oh I should have done XYZ to improve there' in hindsight, but objectively I want to hear myself having given everything in that moment."
To the listener, Sloan's efforts are bluntly obvious and nearly sacrificial. It was born on Errata, honed on the split with Siberian Hell Sounds, and then culminated with Grievous: his utter, true essence poured into sound and the experience it can create inside your head. A vision of Sloan's life -- a part stolen by death, a part granted by life -- translated into mere vibrations in the air whose textures, in all their beautiful complexity, tear us to pieces again and again as they did him.
It's not masochistic; it's deeper than that. It's the search for some truth. The horrific visions expressed on Grievous embed themselves in our minds, preparing us for our own turmoil -- the turmoil of the absence of truth. Is death the final absence of truth? I, for one, take comfort in these most explicit demonstrations of horror. I, for one, seek the extreme. I, for one, cannot come to terms that death is the only truth even if it's the final one.
"I take 'extreme music' quite literally; music that stirs something, exists at a fringe or pushes a boundary of some kind. Extremity can be technical, textural, physical, emotional... It's all kind of nebulous to me and of equal merit," Sloan says. "Lately, if I'm asked what I think is the heaviest album I've ever heard, I'll usually say Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked At Me. That album is more visceral and extreme that any cargo shorts slam bullshit by miles. Utterly devastating. A truly challenging listen if you give it the engagement and attention it deserves, if you let it affect you."
To understand death is to undertake a journey of extremes. It will violently extract the core essence of your being -- to be on display for everyone's gaze, no less -- and show you yourself as you truly are. Artwork is how you make sense of that experience, both its production and its consumption. Sloan's transparency, here, speaks volumes. And it is my opinion that Sloan's musical output achieves its profundity not from the eternal nature of death, but from the eternal breath of life given to him by another. Is that true beauty? Is Grievous a "beautiful" album?
Envisioning the album (and Sloan's discography as a whole) as a lens, then, for your relationship with death: do you find beauty on the extreme fringes of an extreme genre of music? Out here, we find the souls of individuals who ache and yearn for expression, and will cry out to an empty audience; as if by magic, though, some start to listen and understand. Some start to become enraptured by the album's emotional power, they gather and share the experience. We start to think about emptiness, nothingness, absence; this includes loss, grief, and traumatic suffering. But when the climactic midpoint of Grievous's final track "Strewn/Adrift" hits (or any other tremendous climax on the album), it's as if death itself and all its pain are momentarily relieved, granting our minds one clear snapshot vision of something, well, in my honest opinion, extremely beautiful, and beautifully extreme.