Underground Unusualities #2: Strife Machine’s “The Human Dragon” Documents Eternal Night
In this series, Jenna scours the musical expanse for unusual (but fitting) albums to soundtrack life's tumult.
"It’s not just the weather."
That was the thought that shot through my brain, paralyzing my body in turn. In the confines of a tedious work happy hour at which I did not care to be, I felt myself stuck between the rock of my former flame and the hard place of our remaining professional obligations as fellow teaching assistants. In the eternal night of the dive, I had lost all concept of whether wind, fog, or hail was lying in wait outside. Nevertheless, these matters tend to dominate discussion in intensely polite settings like backseats and barstools. Only this time, inevitable discussion of Portland’s infamous clinical depression climate felt like a full-fledged assault.
“Well, it doesn’t help when you’re trapped inside as the rain pours down,” my ex, Leo, said, condescension as thick as condensation. He was thwarting a truth that was a lot harder to swallow than light beer.
His seemingly simple explanation to my sadness had come after I had been posed a question about how last term had gone by an older female coworker, who had taken notice of my silence. I took this opportunity to usurp Leo’s tendency to filibuster in meetings, exposing my winter wounds without pinpointing the catalyst for my heartbreak. After Leo had called me into his office of all places to tell me he had never really loved me, I had become disillusioned with each step I took, particularly when the certainty remained that I would see him dashing down the halls. My presence in class had been reduced to a tiny ghost. But in that moment, with the courage of a cowardly lion, Leo had the audacity to chalk it all up to a case of seasonal blues.
As the conversation among those huddled around the bar turned into lamenting endless days of low cloud cover, I felt myself rise from my spot and lumber to the bathroom with the awareness of the living dead. Entering the safety of the end stall whose door jammed tightly into its hinge, I slid my back down the wall until I hit the specks of paper littering the tile floor. I retrieved the tangled earbuds I’ve habitually kept in my jeans since the eighth grade. I shut my eyes. In came Strife Machine’s The Human Dragon.
I had first discovered Strife Machine in what I had thought was one of the darkest times, which, in hindsight, I now admire for its simplicity. The year was 2017, and to seek refuge from an abusive day job and endless heartbreak, I spent hours drenched in cheap red wine and lo-fi DSBM. Absolution was the latest from Strife Machine back then, and I quickly had become enamored by raw, whistling flutes and droning, muddled chords which collectively provided hypnosis comparable to choppy seas.
Like so many unusualities, I had kept the solo practicing New Zealander in my back pocket.
While the all-night wine well has since run dry since my life has taken a markedly more adult turn, I had found the oppressive agony of Strife Machine to be more relevant than ever when The Human Dragon appeared in my feed over spring break. Through duel riffs expressing hope and despair, it captured the angst that comes with knowing that summer is near, but money is about to run out. I had been off the merry-go-round of stripping since the fall, but once more, I was struggling with whether this was a beast I wanted to keep unleashing despite its unruly risk, or if I wanted to slay it for good.
After three hours of brushing, curling, and bronzing in preparation for a round of auditions that I was uncertain if I was going to attend, I sat hunched at the end of my bed while tortured shrieks escaped from distant computer speakers. I was hoping it would be accompanied by rocks at my window, but alas, I was left to seek my own guest percussion.
In a moment of weakness, I drafted a message to Leo.
About to go try out some clubs… but I don’t know if this is a life I’m meant to live anymore. I don’t know why I’m telling you this and I’m sorry I’ve been so cold since we broke up, but I just need someone to talk to.
I was met with an immediate reply, but it wasn’t the right one. He told me to only go if I wanted to, but that he usually finds it’s better to get up and do something even if you don’t want to do it. Adapting to the lukewarm waters, he helped me sort through venue options. Past human trafficking citations were a resounding no, but previous Stormy Daniels appearances were a definitive yes. Finally, we met our target. I slung my backpack on my shoulder, hitting the spacebar with a clack on my way out the door.
I pulled my hood to protect my styled hair from the evening rainfall. Through a deliberate stride, I passed the large windows of downtown hotels hosting couples dining and entered the smoke and sirens that lead to Chinatown. I occasionally caught peeks from under the brims of baseball hats, but I kept my head down and my feet moving. A man in a three-piece suit loitering on the corner handed me a glossy flyer. I accepted it reluctantly. "Free Personality Test" it read. I tucked it into my pocket with no further interest. I already knew the answer. “Check that out… really!” he called after me.
I could see the yellow awning of Golden Dragon Exotic Club approaching in the distance. A far cry from the glamour of my past clubs on Bourbon Street, it was settled in a block of unassuming storefronts. It boasted a 4:00 a.m. closing time in exchange for its lack of liquor -- a shtick I was still struggling to wrap my head around. After a quick survey of the outside, I yanked open the door under fly-swarmed neon lights, but I scaled down the red velvet stairs as quickly as I came. The greasy man in the bowling shirt behind the counter told me I had arrived two days too early for auditions.
Lingering underneath the cover outside, I plotted. But before I could make any moves, I had to reach into my pocket. The rains of The Human Dragon’s opening track “Foetus” matched what had become a deluge pouring forth right in front of me. The developing ominous melody was equal parts relief and disappointment. My kingdom was crumbling, but I still hoped to make it past the castle walls. I opened my text thread with Leo.
Hey, auditions are on Wednesdays apparently and I’m all dressed up with no place to go… want to meet up and get food or something?
I shuffled nervously. A young woman in glasses and sweats joined me from a safe distance, smoking. After an eternity, a soft buzz cut through rumbling bass. "Thanks for the invite, but I’m pretty tired. I’m going to turn in," Leo wrote.
Into the downpour I descended, the sounds of the city muted by dirge-like drum beats. I eventually passed a major scene: a homeless man was slumped over in a wheelchair and the paramedics were in no rush to transfer him to the stretcher they were unloading. Flashes of silent red lights blinded me.
I saw another life from a distant dream, yet, I was stuck in mine.
The Human Dragon released on April 19th. Follow Strife Machine on Bandcamp.