I’m Listening to Death Metal #13: Immolation’s “Majesty and Decay”
I’ve spent the last seven years, off and on, attempting to put into words what precisely I see in death metal and why it means so much to me. This column is my latest and so far best attempt to enunciate the value of death metal to me, artistically, aesthetically, and emotionally. The following are a set of guided stories loosely centered on certain records and the various relations to them, both inside and outside myself and the records themselves.
What they don't tell you in the suicide ward is that the way you feel cannot possibly last forever.
Actually: no, that's not right, they do tell you, every day, trying to get it wormed into your head via softness and hardness alike, between the forced silent coloring and endless sharing of feelings in close therapeutic circles. But it seems not to stick. There's something about that annihilating black hole in the center of your heart wicking up the matter of your mind and your ability to feel that seems to defy the structures and limitations of space-time, like this dour collapsing gravitational singularity will roil around in the endless black of the post-matter heat death universe before evaporating into a giant iron ball strung in the endless night.
It doesn't seem to occur to you that there could be anything outside of this, not ever again. So it becomes easy to stop really trying.
But inevitably you do. Be it the darkest option of an inevitable success, as gruesome as it is to envision things in those terms, or the eventual terminal boredom at your persistent psychic hell, you claw yourself out of the pit. Or, at least, you try. You cannot remain forever in the fire.
I felt like I was a burn victim, my body covered in imperceptible scar tissue. It was fall of 2011, a little over a year since my suicide attempt and brief hospitalization and only a few months since my father had unexpectedly passed. Ironically, I had more or less recovered from my complete mental collapse -- after the churning abusive cycles of alcohol abuse and meditation and weeks without showering all terminated with the centering grace of Devin Townsend records, I managed to distance myself enough from both my pain and also the strangely addictive process of gazing permanently into it.
I'd like to think I learned something from that: that suffering must be gazed upon, must be reckoned with, whether in me or in another. A mere passive gaze will not typically terminate in the psychotic grace of rattling epiphanic madness that we sometimes think it will, though, and instead just makes us, well, weaker, febriler, more consumed in struggling. I felt like I was trapped in an earthquake below and a hurricane above. I couldn't just stay still; I had to move, to escape, by any means, and while some were a labyrinth of compounding suffering and harm done to others, a few shafts did manage to lead me slowly to the safety beyond the stormwall.
Losing my father was more than just the grief of that unexpected loss. He had been a lifelong drinker and had developed the terminal drinker's belly, the one you get only after cirrhosis has scarred up most of your liver, weeping fluid your liver desperately wants to keep out of your bloodstream and thus out of your brain into your abdominal cavity, causing it to swell like a pregnancy. He had more or less stopped drinking, or at least imperfectly curbed it, but this problem was one that doctors presumed would last until he died, barring some miracle or a transplant which, given his lifetime of drinking, he didn't qualify for anyway.
So, we would take him every now and again to the doctor when the swelling was at its worst -- his belly swollen to its maximum -- and they would tap the cavity and drain the fluid, keeping him in the hospital bed for a few days after to recover and monitor his levels before releasing him. The last decade or so of his life was spent in and out of hospitals in erratic frequency anyway; we had become inured to the constancy of sickness and suffering, the seeming callousness of nurses and absent-mindedness of doctors shuffling in pure mechanical stutter along the halls as old men and young women lay groaning in beds or calling out for visitors that weren't there.
Hospitals are a unique kind of hell, at once coldly inhuman and painfully, disastrously human. A slip of the scalpel during a routine surgery left an artery in my father's belly nicked and bleeding, almost to the point of his death, a routine and simple accident with results that were very nearly the ultimate disaster. This sense of looming all-too-human disaster becomes part of you during extended time spent in and around hospitals, a stomach-churning sense that nothing and nowhere is safe, even as those fatal accidents remain thankfully quite rare.
That my father would pass away in a hospital in what amounts to a sheer fluke would only compound this sense of existential irritability in me.
His passing was mundane, all things considered: a heart attack, a fairly bad one at that, the clot traveling up from his femoral artery (the widest in the body) up to the aorta. The drinking and cirrhosis that came after inevitably robbed him of the use of his legs, neuropathy making walking or even standing a haphazard and potentially dangerous affair. Like many people in that position, he was given a series of exercises and compression socks to wear, all to alleviate the elevated risk of blood clots forming in his legs that extended periods of being bedridden could induce -- efforts my father was not exactly keen on maintaining with full diligence.
That his rising health and increased ability to walk would inevitably lead to him dislodging the clot that had formed in his leg, killing him, was a cruel and impossibly dark irony; that it happened while he was in the hospital, that locus of so much familial suffering and youthful trauma for me, a place where my dad had already more than once almost died, only intensified that sense of impossible persistent threat.
Scion, of all things a marque of Toyota and maker of some truly horrendous looking boxy and terminally slow cars, had inexplicably thrown its hat into the heavy metal ring by releasing the Providence EP through their now-defunct lifestyle marketing division and record label Scion A/V.
This kind of corporate branding of culture is not an altogether uncommon one -- corporations and the people that run them are aware of the perception that they are the ultimate annihilators of culture, the vultures who pick the bones clean and leave the rest to rot. They are, it turns out, unhappy with this perception. This is part of why we see things like arms makers sponsoring literary prizes, multinational corporations buying up indie music publications and, in this case, a car company throwing money at a niche but global musical subculture. There remains somewhere a sense that something about the existence of these things is wrong, something that needs to be rectified, a means of giving back after taking so much from the world and its people.
It stands to reason that one would be skeptical, then, of the then-newly-branded Scion A/V outreach program -- perhaps as a means of culture-washing a car manufacturer and advertising its wares to the young, likely to cover up the same kinds of gross labor injustices we see in such places all over the world.
Except Scion A/V was, and I still find this unbelievable, really good.
Not just in terms of quality or artist curation (though a place that selects A$AP Rocky, Wormrot, Chromeo, and The Melvins as contributors is doing a hell of a job on that end), but also in terms of ethics. Unlike many such work-for-hire culture-washing programs, Scion A/V did not retain ownership of the material produced for them, with all rights for the music remaining property of the recording artists. Instead, Scion would pony up the money for production -- all of it -- and then distribute the material free-of-cost. All proceeds also went back to the artists.
They even put on a multi-day heavy metal festival in Georgia with free tickets that was just as inexplicably, extremely well-booked. At that point, the only remaining hold-up one could really have is a generalized philosophical stance that corporations should stay out of DIY music space, one I'm certainly sympathetic to; however, when those big giants are passing out free checks to deserving artists, covering recording/distribution costs, and the art is free-of-cost to audiences, it becomes more difficult to argue with.
I didn't know any of this at the time, however. All I knew was, across all the metal sites I was reading at the time, that news of a new Immolation release had reached the shores.
Immolation was a band name I recognized, slotting them alongside groups like Incantation and the like, great death metal I had not yet gotten to. So, I clicked play.
I connected immediately to the sharpness and stiffness of "Providence," the first Immolation song I ever heard. The groove in 10/4 certainly helped to win me over, big fan of odd-time playing that I am. But it was mostly the haunted, decayed, magisterial sense of grandeur to the playing that resonated with me -- there was a strong and stern basis, like the deathly march of some ghoulish army of the dead, against which the avant-gardist wails and squeals would splash like winces of pain. In my burnt state, fresh from the suicide ward and the surprising passing of my father a year to the day later, this sounded like what passed for survival for me: a charred body, one free arm, clawing its way back to the green of life. There was something monstrously post-traumatic about that song and what it invoked in me, leaning away from capturing the eruptive and obvious moment of misery and torment for that ever-more tormenting moment that comes after, where you feel stained, gutted… this throbbing empty space within your chest exposed to threat of rot and infection.
Death metal had been many things to me in my life by that point, from the joyful erraticism of Atheist to the inspirational extremity of Gorguts to the wild imaginative seascapes of fire, bile, seawater and blood I found in Morbid Angel and Ulcerate. But Immolation felt different: this was the sensation of experiencing something that ought to have killed me and yet here I am, still living.
I saw Immolation as an inspirational substrate to the Satanic mythos: Lucifer refusing to be destroyed by the fickle and punishing hand of God and instead surviving as a creature of spite. This was puerile of me, certainly, but it was hard at that time to really think of survival as anything else -- the inside of my head had been cored out, the insides thrown away. As much as I toiled away at finishing my first novel, which would go unpublished, I was otherwise utterly devoid of matter and being.
I had gotten a job interview at a Wal-Mart the afternoon of my dad's death. In a fugue state of dissociative grief, I accepted over the phone and scheduled the next stage of my interview for the following afternoon. One of the recurring comments my father had made in the last few months of his life was that I needed a job, that I couldn't just sit at home with my college degree half-finished and with no work to speak of. At the time, this felt cruel to me: I was recovering from a suicide attempt after all, one that hadn't even had its year anniversary, and that process felt so much to me like relearning how to live, wiping away a toxic and devastating internal psychology that tilted me toward oblivion and building from scratch a new one that could sustain me.
Everything felt experimental and raw, like I was swimming through a half-dream, one wrong move threatening to dislodge my psyche and reveal that I had been successful after all and was now just a soul drifting in the psychedelic darkness of Hell.
It seems cartoonish, but I can't emphasize enough how this post-traumatic dissociative fugue sense felt ludicrously real, albeit inconsistent. There was a great deal about PTSD and its ramifications I had not known that I was becoming aware of, all in the curation of a new cybernetic and durable self. The idea of getting a job in the midst of this felt a bridge too far, something my mom agreed with me on. But eventually, due to his pestering, I caved, throwing out applications to a number of places. It just so happened that Wal-Mart was the first one that got back to me, and on the day of my father's passing at that.
I would work long shifts, often overnight, staring vacuously out at the rows of hung clothing and celebrity periodicals and spreads of candies. Most of my friends had moved away, leaving me mostly alone in this stupor -- those that remained would bear witness to my descent deep into the wells of alcoholism and the cruel, shitty, stupid things I would say and do in that state. I felt so much that I had worked so hard to assemble a new and better self in the wake of my mental breakdown and suicide attempt -- one that was driven as much by mental illness and histories of abuse as it was the cascade of difficulties assaulting me at the time -- only to have all that progress ripped away.
There were people who handled these types of things worse than me; I'd already had a number of friends and acquaintances commit suicide or overdose by 22. But there were also many, many others who handled worse with better grace. This meta-judgmental attitude further poisoned me, holding myself accountable to how poorly I was handling things by getting more and more furious with myself, a fury that neither abated nor had any viable way to be safely expressed. So I became poisonous, torturous, drinking and sneering and staring absently like a dead man in the Wal-Mart check out aisle, alone alone alone alone.
One night, I buzzed off all my hair, just to do it. They must have thought I was a skinhead; I got sent to the checkout aisle in the greenhouse section of the store, where no one went, eight-hour shifts spent surrounded by farming tools and my own thoughts.
I often overlay the thought of "Providence" against my memory of that Wal-Mart catching fire. In reality, it was a small fire, one contained to the backroom and quickly extinguished but, for reasons of safety, required us to evacuate the entire store. At this point, I had had a number of PTSD episodes on the line, some brought on just by the tidal motion of fresh grief dredging up hurtful and unresolved thorns from my past and hurling them against me seemingly at random and others by the inadvertent actions of customers and coworkers. The one constant in this, however, was that no matter how bad my response was, no matter how much I was crying and shaking on the line, I would not be allowed to rest, either at home or even in the back.
The worst episode was when a customer came through my line on the phone with her family, who were attending her mother in the hospital. I could hear her talking to what had to have been a sister or sister-in-law, discussing care, when all of sudden there was that tell-tale croak in her throat, the uttering "no no no," the glisten of tears welling in her eyes. I flicked the switch to signal to a manager to come assist her; her mother had just passed and she was sobbing. I was sobbing, too. Her pain became my fresh pain, the image of her face as she learned her mother was now dead a brutal knife-like recurrence of the confusion that must have been on my face when my mother walked into the house at 3 p.m. when she was supposed to be at work in a city over an hour away, followed by the raw panicked pain as she tremblingly told me that my father was dead.
Externally, coldly, we know death occurs, that people lose loved ones and go on to live lives of their own in the wake of that. And sometimes we handle those traumas with grace, soberly assessing the lives of those we lost and the joy and discomfort they created in life, evaluate them as whole people with the full richness and breadth of a living person, and then carry on. But other times -- times that are seemingly designated at random by some cruel invisible hand -- we are utterly destroyed by a death. The wheels of the cogs tick away and away and away, arranging themselves into the perfect circuit of suffering and psychic decay, and these spaces become hard to map and convey in rational language to those who haven't experienced them before precisely because there is a kind of maddened alien logic to grief and mental illness. It feels at first like a lawless realm of chaos, each footfall upheaving the whole of the systems of the world such that there is no consistency to grasp on to, no hope of navigation; you just batten down the hatches and attempt, desperately, to survive.
This is the way that I lived for those months and indeed a few years following my dad's passing, like some rotting hand grasped my ankle as I pulled myself out of that wretched hole, lacuna to that other place, only to be dragged into the swirling lawless terrain again.
I had moved eventually, resuming my college degree in my early-to-mid twenties in a desperate attempt outwardly to get my life back on track but inwardly to come back to life again. I felt, again, burnt alive, skin blackened and crackling; these movements toward life were as much the miraculous resurrection of flesh for me as they were the reconstitution of a normal psyche and life. I got a job at a sandwich shop, cut my hair into a sensible haircut, shaved my face. It must have been clear that I was in no way, shape or form ready for standard work… I was a mess then, an absolute and unadulterated mess. Between the drinking and klonopin abuse, I had only harried my mind further in the fits of my grief, vehicles of pleasure turning into methodologies of self-torture.
There are a certain set of behaviors you engage in when you are in tremendous pain, a cruel and cacophonous mixture of mean-spirited jokes and fits of crying. I am able now to be much kinder to the kind of person I was then; I was young and I was struggling, lost within the harrows of grief and untreated mental illness. But I also did not know what the hell I was doing, nor was I always mindful of how it would affect others. What mattered was my desperate war against myself, against my mind which had become treacherous and poisonous. I did not seek to cause harm to others, but I also was not a good or consistent friend. People went easy on me. I foregrounded my struggles and they witnessed them.
But sometimes in retrospect, I wonder whether that mercy was warranted and, in those moments, I contemplate the miracle of mercy just as much as I shamefully wonder whether I would have reassembled myself faster had there been a stiffer hand. Not that the stiff hands of others were lacking or that I consistently responded well to them. Again: the lawlessness of that psychic world.
It was during my work hours at the sandwich shop that, after pawing around Immolation's discography for years, I finally listened to Majesty and Decay for the first time.
Majesty and Decay was two years old by that point and had not yet become as relatively well-received as it inevitably would, at least from what I'd seen. I'd been searching for something, that perfect record to play while I did my long and tedious work. That particular environment had revealed itself as a fertile plain of meditative potential, one that the added intensifier and meditation guide of a record could deepen to great satisfaction. One morning at work, I recalled the intensity I felt hearing the Providence EP -- that sense of being still burning and crawling fresh from the fire -- but Majesty and Decay, their then-most recent, was more easily accessible at that moment, so it was settled.
The sense I'm describing is now inexorably intertwined to Majesty and Decay. There is an image in my mind, my mad smile in 90-degree heat outside the hair salon that sat next door, one earbud firmly pressed into my ear canal while the other dangled at my neck, the roaring magisterial guitars like royal fanfares for Satan alight in me. This was a space in which I have since found preciously little that explores it, at least to satisfaction, that wretched space between the trauma and recovery, where you are still fucked-up and wracked by lingering suicidality and self-destructive behavior but trying desperately to learn how to live, to learn to be kind and thoughtful to others and to yourself.
There was a feeling within Majesty and Decay: that of the necessary rage and writhing life of someone who is determined to survive. This sentiment comes to different people in different shapes; for some it is a punk record, for others a soul song. I have felt it in those spaces, too, but there was something effervescent about that first listen to Majesty and Decay, the sense of haggard breathing I'd adopted as I fought through near-daily panic attacks, the half-manic jaggedness I had taken on, all of which was driven by this furious desire to live through this, to claw my way out the other side by any means, to become healthy and whole again.
Majesty and Decay's cover spoke to me: a fallen king, rotting, threatening to return to life again, all matched against music that was absolutely furious with both declarations of its regality as much as its primal life.
I felt like I was a waste. Worse, that I had wasted myself. I had witnessed others that were stronger than me, that dealt with mental illness and abuse and loss and suicide attempts and the swirling PTSD that follows, only they were less destroyed than me, more successful, more alive. I felt small, weak, stupid; I felt like I broke and dissembled completely in places where others who had dealt with worse had toughed through, and this seemed obviously to me to be due to my own weakness. I have spoken before of what death metal meant to me in childhood, in abuse, in suicidality, even in the lingering wake of grief and that trembling precipice, but here it took on a different meaning, one unique to the mind some time after the brutality of trauma but before the necessary arc of healing has meaningfully concluded.
There's been decent writing about great punk being the words we wish we could say to others but not always having the means or ability to -- death metal has always been an inversion of this for me. It may gaze out at the world, but its emotional force to me has always been that of my voice talking back to me. That summer, I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my father's passing and the two-year anniversary of my suicide attempt, the annihilating 12 months between forming the hard break that still to me feels quite literally like the ending of one life and birth of another. I was in so many ways newly born, harried and raw, and it felt in that swampy Virginia heat that Majesty and Decay was one of the few things that could be honest with me, that could capture both the sharp and royal shape I wanted for myself that I was terrified I had squandered as much as it confronted me with a harshness about who and what I had become and what I would need to let go of to become who I wanted to be.
There is no way, of course, that Immolation conceived their death metal record doing that or meaning that to someone, but that's the strange power and mystery that art has on the psyche for you. I felt dissolved, hurled into chaos. Majesty and Decay, especially its strikingly architectural and monumental avant-gardisms like the wordless chorus of "A Token of Malice," was a stone suspended in air, a solidity from which I could reconstruct a sense of the world.
This space and sentiment is admittedly tremendously difficult for me to write about. Not because it is necessarily more triggering than writing concretely about abuse or trauma or loss or grief, but instead because that space it's describing is amorphous itself. There is something concrete and fungible about memories of childhood first impressions of heavy metal just as much as moments of trauma -- my relation to Opeth's My Arms, Your Hearse becomes easy to map because that was the first death metal record I fell in love with, a story that I know like the back of my hand due to how much it shaped the years to come.
But the space in which Immolation came and seared themselves into my heart is so much harder to speak about, partly because it was less than a decade ago now, and also because that notion of the space between trauma and healing is so underexplored. It is something I struggled with much more then and a large part of why Majesty and Decay became so dear to me as a navigational aid. We don't tend to even want stories of this muddy middle space, where there are just as many steps forward as there are steps back, where we want to do good and want to help people but so consistently seem to hurt others and hurt ourselves.
My sense of time in those first few years after my mental collapse is deeply inconsistent, a recurrent issue in PTSD and mental illness in general, further complicating things. My own ability to reach concretely back and touch a specific place and time is as complicated and obfuscated for me now as my ability to find clear ground then. Everything about that time feels wrapped in chaos, so much more than the concreteness of the traumas that triggered it. Those are the wildlands that are born from that kind of collapse, where we are as likely to exit those spaces due to a finally successful suicide attempt as we are to come out healthy and sympathetic to the suffering of others.
What I remember clearly, however, is how their guitars matched my spirit, how Immolation felt like a perfect color-map of what I felt when I did not have the words or mind to communicate it.
Majesty and Decay becomes special to me in that sense because it represents a clear and definable locus where death metal became more than just a series of technical exercises or an adolescent burst of wrath and energy, where it was more than horror movie lyrics and brutality. Art does not need to be more than that, to be clear, and art that is a simple aesthetic pleasure is just as meaningful in an objective sense as groundbreaking or emotionally transformative works. But we're so often presented with the idea that the value of death metal lies in those other spaces instead of that emotionally eruptive one.
Prior to the heat of both my frantic attempts at psychic reassembly matched to the august and authoritative thrust of Majesty and Decay, Immolation was another of the great death metal bands for me, a historical figure that I needed to understand in a concrete and segmented fashion. This was the way for so long I had lived my life: the world as sheets of data arranged in columns and rows to be memorized and internalized, lists of albums and recording studios and labels and performers, release dates and critical consensus, the agreed favorite and the real best record.
But one of the startling emotional truths I learned in my devastation, not the trauma itself but the mired and miasmic headspace that would haunt me for years afterward, was the power and value of the subjective. That sun-soaked noonday listen felt like a bomb bursting in my chest. This was no longer Immolation but my Immolation, and the fact that Majesty and Decay was not widely considered among their best no longer had any meaning to me nor would it ever again. That the rest of the band's discography would be refreshed within this experience -- that I would find the same writhing and wrathful lust for self-becoming within all their other albums I already loved in the wake of this -- was a miracle.
And I suddenly understood miracles, the sub-rational and anti-rational, witnessed their raw power, and had allowed myself to be bent by their dreamlike alien logic.
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
I'm Listening to Death Metal #10: Cynic and Bloodbath.
I'm Listening to Death Metal #11: Cannibal Corpse
I'm Listening to Death Metal #12: Demilich