Prognathous gears grind
So diligent and serrated they mesh
Toothed cogs churn
So trenchant, against soft flesh
Worked to the bone
Up to the hilt, depredated
To stoke the furnaces
Life slowly slips away
In this mechanized corruption line
By mincing machinery industrialized – pulped and pulverized
Enslaved to the grind
Blood, sweat, toil, tears
Arbeit macht frei/fleisch
Grave to the grind
Inimitable gears twist
To churn a living grave
Stainless cogs shredding
Scathing pistons bludgeon and flail
Stripping to the bone
Retund mandrels levigate
Just raw material
Your pound of flesh for the suzerain
Life slowly dissipates
In a corruption line, mechanized
By mincing machinery, industrialized – crunched and brutalized
A grave to the blind
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
The ghoulish, omnipresent nature of the Protestant work ethic is everywhere you look in these last days of our dying empire. It’s offered as the panacea for all that ails the American spirit. After all, those who worked hard built this great land. If we simply do more, exert ourselves we can attain our dreams. That house with a trampoline in the backyard and the smiling kids and the really big television can all be yours. We go to our jobs, acting out our lives, pacing, stammering about how we’ve been here since 6 AM, afraid to appear to be idle even for a moment, repeating our actions over and over with terminal efficiency. All the while we run headlong towards our own demise, with only the better mousetrap we’ve built as proof of our worth. If one takes a step back from the banality of modern life they might quite honestly want to ask the question, “Is all this effort worth it?”
This question is at the core of the Carcass song Arbeit Macht Fleisch. The title is a play on words based on the expression was emblazoned above the gates of Nazi concentration camps like Auschwitz. The original expression, Arbeit Macht Frei, translates to “work will make you free”. While I strongly doubt Carcass was looking to compare the Holocaust to life in the modern world, I believe the deeper idea is that work is often mindless drudgery that can, over time, deprive someone of the experience of being human. It is a series of meaningless, mechanistic actions that create nothing more than the need for more meaningless, mechanistic actions. Most people are familiar with the rags to riches Horatio Alger stories so deeply engrained in the myth of America. A person who works hard will eventually attain the American Dream or so the story goes. In this song, Carcass proposes another horrific possibility. They offer the idea that work will not make someone free, but it will make one’s flesh (fleisch) a part of a great senseless pageant. Certainly, all work is not pointless as all jobs are not mindlessly dull, but it is fair to say many careers are built on the endless drive to create things that are simply not needed based on illusions that, held up to the light, hardly seem worthy of a lifetime of stress and strain.
If this idea has a measure of truth to it and those experiencing it recognize this, what makes them move forward and continue to show up day after dreary day? One possibility is the sheer power of the mythology that surrounds work. In America, work has taken on nearly chimerical significance. It is often assumed that those who are the most successful are those who have worked the hardest. The perception of someone’s work ethic has become, on some level, the measure of a man or woman. Those who possess the least resources are perceived to be lazy and apathetic. Those on top of the ladder seem to be entitled to whatever they own because of their Herculean fits of labor. Sure, there are your occasional lottery winners or millionaire heiresses, but the system itself is basically fair. When a persons worth becomes defined by a characteristic they are motivated to push harder. After all, no one wants to end up like “those people”, the ones who give no effort and are rewarded with lives of poverty and destitution. They are the ones who deserve blame and scorn. They are the ones who have failed the American Dream; it certainly has not failed them.
Being able to buy into this myth, and it most certainly is a myth, comes with a cost. The cost is paid in hours, minutes and seconds. We are given so little time to be alive, a pittance in the larger flow of endless time. So much of this time is spent chasing a fantasy, not just the delusion of material paradise on earth, but also the promise of worthiness that indeterminate spasms of labor supposedly grant. However, we can never prove ourselves in this arena because the finish line keeps moving forward. Just out of our grasp. So close we nearly taste it, but never close enough to touch.
I doubt that Carcass intended this song to be a complete renunciation of the importance of work. They are talented musicians who must have spent untold hours honing their craft to the point where they could create a masterwork the likes of “Heartwork”. However, the elevation of work to the central position in the lives of people and its use as a defining characteristic in the worth of the individual is a driving factor in our sustained race to nowhere. Our value should not be based on what we create or do for a living, but rather for the very fact that we exist. Each life, regardless of what it is used for, is a life worthy of respect, adoration and esteem. It is this outlook that offers us access to compassion and empathy for those of us traveling together through the formidable struggles, terrible humiliations and unyielding indignities that comprise life in our world.
Works of art, painted black
Magniloquent, bleeding dark
Monotonous palate, murky spectrum, grimly unlimited
Food for thought, so prolific
In contrasting shades, forcedly fed
Abstraction, so choking, so provocative
A canvas to paint, to degenerate
Dark reflections – degeneration
A canvas to paint, to denigrate
Dark reflections, of dark foul light
Profound, aesthetic beauty
Or shaded, sensory corruption
Perceptions, shattered, splintered, mirroring
In deft taints, diluted, tinted
Spelt out, in impaired color
Denigrating, going to paints to pain – not a pretty picture
Works of heart bleeding dark
Black, magniloquent art
Monotonous palate, murky spectrum, grimly unlimited
Prolific food for thought
Contrasting, fed with force
Abstraction, so choking, so provocative
Bleeding works of art
Seething work so dark
Searing words from the heart
Heartwork is a statement of purpose. Its story belongs not only to Jeff Walker and Carcass but also to anyone who has ever spent a significant stretch of time staring into the abyss. Why do we gaze into the darkness? What are we looking for? What is it that makes some people gravitate toward existential questions that are presented in extreme music? Heavy metal, for all intents and purposes, is a death factory. Trying to find ten songs on your hard drive that don’t deal with some form of horrific strife, violent rage or terrible suffering is a nearly absurd task for those who are obsessed with The Sound. Even power metal, with all of its uplift and ecstatic jubilance, often contains elements of profound sadness and pain. To spend your life pondering terror, strife and human suffering hardly seems to be time well spent, but its appeal, at least for me, is undeniable.
There seems to be a popular school of thought that encourages people to “think happy thoughts”. The idea of perseverating on horror is felt by many to be a recipe for dangerous feelings of sadness and detachment from the world. On one level, there is something that seems correct about this idea. Good vibes in, good vibes out. Perfect equilibrium. Yet, no matter how much goodness and light we choose to bathe in, we still suffer and we still die. Spending life trying to fill ourselves with the beauty around us may be the best way to live for some, but it feels disingenuous to me. Death and suffering are all around us. We are, in fact, all living out a slow motion disintegration. I cannot hide from it; I cannot pretend it isn’t there. My fear of the eventual fate that awaits me is a critical element of who I am.
There is an authenticity that comes with accepting one’s fate. Beyond that, there is a strange feeling of liberation that a person can achieve by coming to terms with the worst elements of existence. Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a samurai whose insights were collected in a book the Hagakure in the early 18th century, makes a fantastic case for this sort of thinking. One of the most stirring passages of the book says, “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.”
This meditation on death seems like a morbid exercise, but how else is a person supposed to rationally process the mortal terror that comes with the recognition of one’s finiteness. We cannot change it, but we do not have to run from it.
In the song Heartwork, Walker is stating the necessity of recognizing the dim, murky reality of our being. The artist, coming to terms with this awareness, can do nothing of value but create an art that reflects the degeneration of our spirits and bodies. The goal is not to shock people, nor to frighten people, but simply to state in no uncertain terms, that everything is not okay. This type of dark art can provide the audience with the gift of catharsis. We are not alone in our terror. We may have to accept the terrible terms of our existence, but we don’t have to do so by ourselves.
Here’s the video…..
No Love Lost
Numbing feelings dead
Synthesized broken hearts to bled
Without emotion your heartstrings played
Strummed and severed to the tune of a tragic serenade
[A tragic chorus]
Without emotion, your heartstrings break
Snapped and severed to the tune of a tragic, sad cliche
No love lost
When all is said and done
There’s no love lost
The low cost of loving
Human frailties and weakness are easy prey
How your poor heart will bleed
The modern conception of romantic love is nothing short of vulgar. I do not mean vulgar in the sense of it being lewd or lascivious, but more so remarkably crass and repulsively commercialized. One of the more humiliating acts that exist in our culture is that of picking out a card for a loved ones birthday. The well-intentioned shopper is immediately met with all forms of syrupy sweet, ersatz garbage that pass for a genuine expression of feeling. Being told “I love you” Hallmark style is the equivalent of having some dude in a lime green leisure suit approach you and tell you that we should get rid of all the letters in the way so that “U and I can get together.” Love can seem like an ill-concieved, ham-handed con with all the charm of one of those insidious pop-ups that try to convince the barely sentient of the rich rewards that will be showered on them if only they surrender their credit card number. It is not hard to understand the disgust that would motivate Jeff Walker to write the words in “No Love Lost”.
While I am in complete agreement with the notion that love has been trivialized, I can’t climb on board with the idea that there is no such thing as love. The following admission is probably going to get my universal skeptic license suspended for the next six months, but, in all honesty, love is the one con I simply cannot renounce. I want to believe that there is a category of human experience that transcends our own personal needs and allows us, even momentarily, to exist for another. I want to think that there is more to life than survival and that we have a deeper need for connection to other humans. There must be more than just dumb, barely animate material wandering aimlessly from cradle to grave. I believe that many people share an essential longing to understand each other, to see their neighbors as beings dealing with the same existential dilemmas as themselves, struggling to find some compassion or empathy and aspiring to give that gift to another even though nothing tells them they have to. The best approximation of these feelings and desires is the word love.
Maybe this understanding reflects the cynicism expressed in “No Love Lost”. Imagine desperately wanting to feel the connection to others and being given back nothing but Hugh Grant movies and power ballads. Trying to come to terms with love in our contemporary carnival of cheap thrills and easy answers is a demoralizing task. If I am ever to really conceptualize what love means my expression of it will be minimized by the fact that the language I have to communicate it has been co-opted by a bunch of soft-sell dream peddlers who are more concerned about appealing to a demographic representation of males 25-34 than finding deeper human truths. Why not look at the Love Industry with scorn? After all, it has robbed us of our full means to relate something significant and meaningful to the world. Instead of filling us with a feeling of awe and reverence, the word fills so many seekers of reality with bitterness and irritation.
Maybe the real demonstration of the transcendent power of love is whether it can overcome the cesspool of a market in which it now resides. Occasionally there are human truths that possess so much power that they can surmount any obstacle set before them. That’s what I’d like to believe, anyway. For us to believe that love is real maybe we need to see that it can be debased in every way imaginable and still carry meaning. Or maybe those who sell it have uncovered the terrible truth; that love is simply an inducement to get the suckers to buy more of what they don’t need. Give them the fantasy of love and they’ll gladly exchange it for safety, freedom and power over their own lives. I desperately hope that this isn’t so.
(This series is being co-published by the folks over at MindOverMetal.org. Check’em out!)
The second song on the record “Carnal Forge” is one of the more lyrically challenging songs I’ve encountered. When I first got a copy of the record, I sat there with a dictionary for an hour trying to figure out what on earth Carcass was talking about. Jeff Walker is known for having a remarkable vocabulary and this song proves it. Unless you scored in the top one percentile on your college boards, you are going to need help with a few of the words he uses. As a service to our readership with IQs below 160, I took the lyrics and clarified them a bit.
(A massacre that takes many different forms)
(A vulgar, disgusting display of death)
Sublime enmangling steelbath
(A glorious, destructive bath)
Of escheated atrocities
(Of things lost to the State through terrible acts)
Enigmatic longanimity of ruminent mass graves
(Quiet graves that show a mysterious ability to suffer without sound)
Meritorious victory, into body-bags now scraped…
(A great win worthy of recognition that is shown by a high body count)
(The authority and power of piles of dead bodies)
The dead regorged
(The dead shot out of their graves)
Osculatory majestic wrath
(A union of beautiful anger)
This carnal forge
(Human forms beaten and molded like a blacksmith working with metal)
Desensitized – to perspicuous horror
(No longer able to feel the awfulness of horror)
Dehumanized – fresh cannon fodder…
(Humans reduced to objects and killed on the battlefield)
(Something awful being praised for its greatness)
(An obvious massacre)
Dehumanized – cannon fodder
(Murder in a way that is clean and neat)
(Murder made holy)
Desensitized – to genocide
(No longer capable of feeling what is wrong with mass murder)
(Piles of dead bodies ruling over the land)
(Death shot upwards)
(Being drenched with blood)
(Bloodshed and death turned into something else)
In the cold, callous dignity of the mass grave…
(Respectful mass graves without feeling)
(Violence taking different forms and leading to a massacre)
Cruel, mendacious creed
(Evil, lying system of belief)
Sublime, murderous bloodbath
Of fiscal atrocities
(A massacre having to do with money)
Inexorable mettle in redolent consommé
(Unstoppable courage blended into a pleasant smelling soup)
An opprobious crucible of molten human waste…
(A disgraceful furnace of melting bodies)
(Bodies piled up to the sky)
(Endlessly shot upwards)
The smelting butchery
(A process of separating metals, a process of slaughtering animals)
Of the carnal forge
Desensitized – to pragmatic murder
(No longer feeling the horror of murder which is committed for practical purposes)
Dehumanized – into cannon fodder…
(Turned into non-human form and destroyed without feeling)
“Carnal Forge” is a searing study of the horrific nature of war. The whole “war is bad” theme has been done to death in heavy metal, but through the use of clever language and Joycean puns, Carcass is able to breathe life into a hackneyed lyrical concept. The major motif in the song is the monstrous merger between mechanized and human form. The effect is that the listener has a difficult time distinguishing between the two. This melding of forms stresses the concept of dehumanization in an even more immediate way. When Walker sings of “inexorable mettle in redolent consommé” he is giving the image of a soup made from mettle (courage) but also a soup made from metal (the human form turned into scrap). “Fiscal atrocities” means the destruction of capital, but also is meant to imply physical atrocity (the destruction of the human form). In these puns, we see a world where the lines blur between the animate and inanimate. When this line is obliterated, so are we. Our willingness to see humans as objects makes it possible for us to murder those who share our likeness. It is in the Carnal Forge of war that our human characteristics are lost.
The ultimate irony of this destruction through desensitization is that it is so engrained in some circles that it is not greeted with horror. Instead, it is celebrated. Soldiers who return are feted with parades; those who do not are given dignified, stately memorials. The dead do not care about these things. They do not care about the flags that cover their caskets, they are not interested in the soldiers firing skyward in their honor, and they do not gaze proudly at their names etched into stone walls. They cease to feel anything in the name of country or God or safety or resources or land or whatever-reason-was-given-to-them as they take their final journey into endless night.
There is no honor in death. The dead only know coldness and silence. Yet through a stroke of pure madness, many believe that the great wrongs that have been committed can be righted through ceremony. The louder we shout our love for the soldiers, the easier it is to forget the great waste of life that has been sacrificed in our names. Even the veneration of the dead is an act of objectification that makes future suffering more possible and even more likely.
Remembrance of their anguish does not wipe the slate clean. It is not for them; it is for us. A genuine act of contrition would be to create a world where massacres are entirely unacceptable, no matter who commits them. We do not live in that world. Instead, we live in a world where idle actions and traditions absolve us of our responsibility to stop the madness of war.
(Special thanks to Metal Matt Longo for his brilliant edit of this. Thanks to his fine work this article is being simulcast by the good folks over at MindOverMetal.org. Stop on by. Tell’em Keith sent ya!)
Heartwork, the 1993 release by Carcass, is easily one of the most compelling metal albums ever recorded. First and foremost, it is an explosion of monstorous guitar riffs, frenetic drumming and raging energy. The music is captivating and overwhelming. Heartwork is a remarkably powerful lyrical album that deals intelligently with issues like globalization, dehumanization and existential dread. The music has been widely praised by many music journalists. The lyrics, however, have been given scant attention. Jeff Walker, the band’s singer, bass player and chief lyricist, envisions a world that is entirely devoid of human feeling or empathy. Walker’s adept use of language, particularly double entendre, lays bare the man’s inhumanity in all of its baseness. His world is an empty one, filled only with sorrow, guilt and deep-seated hatred.
The album behaves like a book, each song a chapter examining a set of widely held beliefs and contrasting them with his vision of a world gone completely insane. Over the next few months, I will attempt to analyze the themes and ideas song by song in an attempt to convey the inventiveness of Walker’s lyrics as well as the perspicacity of his message.
Welcome, to a world of hate
A life of buried dreams
Smothered, by the soils of fate
Welcome, to a world of pain
Bitterness your only wealth
The sand of time kicked in your face
Rubbed in your face
When aspirations are squashed
When life’s chances are lost
When all hope is gone
When expectations are quashed
When self-esteem is lost
When ambition is mourned
…All you need is hate
In futility, for self-preservation
We all need someone
Someone to hate
Buried Dreams is a nightmare vision of a world completely unconnected to its humanity. It serves as an overview of the themes that are addressed in each song and is a great starting point because it contains the most unambiguous lines on the record. In Walker’s “world of hate”, humans begin their journey in life filled with hope only to see that hope slowly eroded by the fixed nature of reality. This reality is the death and pain experienced by all humanoid beings. It is immovable, unchangeable and constant. Humans search blindly in the dark for some reason, some deeper meaning that will connect the dots and make the pain they experience intelligible. We fill ourselves with illusions in order to soften the blow of this horrible truth. As the truth becomes more real, we grasp harder at the illusion but ones commitment to an illusion will never make that deception a reality. We slowly come to terms with the understanding that there is no connection, there is no one tending the fire and the center simply does not hold. Once this veneer of meaning has been stripped away there is nothing left to hold onto but pure visceral hatred.
By experiencing hatred for something, we are given the ability to overcome our basic alienation from ourselves all the while connecting to the other beings around us. Love would be another way to connect, but the drawback of love is that it is fleeting. Its initial joy is snuffed out by the understanding that our basic existential problem, death, will cause love to one day give way to sorrow and despair. If you connect with hatred you never have to feel loss because the eventual vanquishing of your foe will be greeted with a feeling of joy and accomplishment. No one mourns the death of their enemy.
On the surface, the lyrics could be read as a simplistic explanation of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 30s and 40s. A society like Germany, which was drowning in debt and filled with impoverished humans recovering from the insanity of years of mindless trench warfare, was ready for the message of hate that Hitler brought. I believe the song is meant to have much more of a timeless message with broader overtones about the human condition. The line that universalizes this song is “in futility, for self-preservation, we all need someone…someone to hate.” This is a Hobbesian view of a world of beings so frightened of death that they are willing to do anything to avoid it, even if they know that their actions are eventually pointless. We are willing to create a Leviathan that may kill us for our disobedience in order to be safe. The wall each of us run into is death and we are willing to embrace any idea that allows us to fully avoid thinking about our eventual consequence. We are willing to embrace ideas that are self-destructive in order to escape the fear of death. If this isn’t true, then how do you explain war? This horrible irony of our basic condition is that we long to avoid death, but we do so in a way that often hastens its coming.
And so our dreams are buried as we are carried kicking and screaming to our own certain demise. We mask our fears with delusions of enemies all around us. We think that we can stop the inevitable if we bomb that thing or execute this thing but with our last dying breath we are reminded of the futility of all of it. Even hate cannot save us. The final, horrible irony of our Buried Dreams is that we will eventually be buried next to them.
(I am pretty darned excited to announce that this series will also be running at MindOverMetal.org, one of my favorite metal sites. Special thanks to my homeboy Metal Matt Longo who not only agreed to run the thing, but even gave me a fantastic title for the series and some killer editing ideas. Anyway those dudes speak truth and wisdom over there, check’em out)