Posts Tagged Heartwork
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.
This is the sixth in a series of articles analyzing the lyrics from the 1993 Carcass album “Heartwork”.
This Mortal Coil
Tearing down the walls
Breaching frontiers, unlocking the gates
To a new world disorder
A fresh balance of terror, the equilibrium of hate/
All flesh entwined, in the equality of pain
Archaic nescience unleashed
Entrenched, a bitter legacy
Tempered in mental scars
All flesh entwined in mortal equality
Tangled mortal coil
Twisted and warped
Tangled mortal coil
“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western World is imploding. During the mechanical ages, we extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace….Any extension, whether of skin, hand or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex.”
If we are not here in the traditional sense, then where are we? If our world has transformed from one of fragmented nations to a global village, what does that mean for us, the humans that inhabit such a world? Today’s human is locked into a nearly constant struggle for identity, attempting to at once be an individualized autonomous self and an interconnected part of an ever-shrinking world. We are engaged in a process of knocking down many of the walls that for generations have kept us separate. In this moment of great potential, one is left to wonder whether we will seize the opportunity for global embrace or build a new set of seemingly insurmountable walls. This question is the echo of our footstep as we wander headlong into the new frontier.
If the self is no longer locked in its corporeal shell and has, indeed, reached through the boundaries of the body and into the never-ending stratosphere, what does that really mean for us? After all, I look at myself in the mirror and am still contained in a structure remarkably similar to that once inhabited by my ancestors. Yet, my mind and spirit reach out beyond the fleshy walls of the Self and live an all-at-once, timeless existence in the technological superstructure that is fast becoming our world. Or, more precisely, what does it mean that these ideas are flowing out of my mind, through, my fingers, through the ethers, into your brain almost simultaneously and yet I’ve barely moved? It is not as simple as thinking things have changed from one form to another. Rather, it is significant to understand that we are both individualized fragmented bodies and the all of the universe. We are currently living in an age where we are consistently faced with being two things that seemingly cannot inhabit the same space. How can a thing be finite and infinite at the same time? More importantly for our purposes, how does a being reconcile the contradictions and stresses that arise from living in multiple realities in the same moment?
There is no easy answer for this. The lyrics to this song are a reflection of the pain one might believe itself to feel when coming to terms with a question of this size and scope. The quest for identity under such bizarre conditions could well lead someone to a feeling of being enraged and overwhelmed. It’s not hard to imagine the “archaic nescience unleashed” to be the hand of the Self reaching back through time clutching at any answer that spares us the uncertainty of not being able to fully comprehend the world. The coil on which Shakespeare so eloquently described us as living upon does not, upon first glance, seem built for multi-dimensional travel. The connection of seven billion spines seems to be an inexplicable tangle from which we can never escape, but is it?
Maybe trying to find an answer is the larger problem we face. If we believe in the need for a solution, we must also believe in the existence of the problem. Maybe all there is to do is to call the thing what it is. The world offers us an impossible contradiction. Even in the confusion created by this idea, we are still given the power to say, “Yes, both are true in this moment.” Is it impossible? Yes. But so too are the bizarre terms of our existence. There is no rational context under which we can properly understand what it means to be alive. In stopping the search and accepting an answer that defies all we think we know, we might well be able to begin understanding a question whose vastness reaches beyond eternity and whose minuteness is less than the size of one atom of our physical body.
Globalization, on some level, is a metaphorical magnification of the quest for spiritual identity faced by all humans. It is the human condition writ large in a way that can be directly observed by anyone willing to ponder the meaning of the Self. It broadcasts the eloquence of our contradiction in a way that is both tangible and boundless. While our immediate reaction to the question may be fear, it also offers a sublime opportunity for self-awareness. This form of awareness may feel like a curse at times, but it is a gift of the highest order. It is nothing less than a window into the deepest recesses of our communal soul.
I bow down your precious icon, deity of self-suppression
This effigy of flesh, corporeal christi, nailed
In submission to this false idol, seeking deliverance
From this spiritual hierarchy, downward spiraling, a corrupt throne
Of repression and guilt
Our will be done
Thy kingdom burn
On my knees, before this tormented flesh, in irreverence
In communion with this parasitic host of virtuous divinity
This imperious creed bears testament to the failures of our morality
Righteous durance is our cross we bear in stations
In stations of the lost
Our will be done
Thy kingdom burn – thy kingdom burn
Our will be done
From your knees arise
By your own hand, your god you scribe
The earth shall inherit the meek
Your god is dead
Bound down, in God we’re trussed, foul stature
Icons embodied in flesh, we nail
In servitude to deities fashioned in our self image
Shadows of eternal strife cast by those who serve
Serve a crown of pawns
If up until this point you weren’t sure how the band Carcass feels about religion, Embodiment states it completely and in no uncertain terms. The song is an outright renunciation of organized religion, Christianity in particular. The lyrics bubble with hatred and scorn for the self-annihilating principles that they believe mark the Christian outlook. I don’t share the disdain that the band feels for Christianity, but the force of the language used in their argument is highly compelling.
The song’s central argument is that Christianity is an advanced form of slavery. They make the case by dismissing the existence of any fathomable God and assuming that the goals of religion are to allow those who are in power to continue an unfettered hegemony over the practice of free will. Where some people see peace and comfort, Carcass perceives control and subjugation. Certainly, some of their argument is legitimate. There are plenty of historical examples of the misuse of religion to advance the selfish ends of a tyrannical elite. However, the song fails to address much of the comfort and solace that it has brought people for over 2000 years. Further, it would be facile minded to simply assume that the self-abnegation at the core of Christian thought is completely a bad thing. The giving up of one’s desires to benefit the community is on many occasions, inside or outside of a religious context, beneficial towards the human race as a whole.
In spite of the problems the argument presents, the language with which the case is made is striking. The core belief in the song is contained in the beautifully efficient and devastating pun “In God we’re trussed”. By taking an expression found on American money and perverting its message, Carcass is able to make several critical points. First, the use of a religious phrase in an economic context effectively links the agenda of today’s Christianity with the pursuit of financial gain. Then, they take the phrase and change trust (an act of faith) into trussed (to be tightly bound or in this case completely controlled). Essentially, they argue here that while you may choose to subvert your needs for the Church it will not extend you the same courtesy and, worse, it will take your belief and use it to hoodwink you into giving up your possessions and your liberty. In their eyes, it is the greatest hustle in human history.
What is truly lost for believers is contained in the heart-wrenching expression “the earth shall inherit the meek.” The original phrase “the meek shall inherit the earth” is an appeal to the Job-like masses that give so tirelessly but ask for little in return. They suffer in silence, but at the end of the day, they will be rewarded…or so the story goes. The good and humble people will come to control the earth and the wicked will be cast from it. The subversion of this expression contains allows for a very troubling message to be presented. If you suffer in silence and do the right thing your reward will be the grave. Death awaits us all and those who are pious and righteous are rewarded with the same eternal darkness that await those who pillage the world blind. There are no rewards in this life or any other for those who follow the words contained in the Bible. The meek will be buried right alongside those who engage in a Dionysian life of personal excess and unabated greed. The ground cannot tell the two apart.
If this argument is legitimate, it presents us with chilling questions about how we should live our lives that goes beyond religion. If there are truly no consequences for our actions, why not do whatever we want? Those with the most material, at the end of the day, are those who have benefitted most from a purely material world. If all that is promised to us for a good life is an eventual death, what is the motivation in living a justly?
I believe that the truth or untruth of God’s existence need not bear on whether someone acts morally. If every word of the Bible is true and God’s existence is exactly as portrayed in Christianity, we should act with as much kindness, patience and love to those around us as we are capable. If every word of the Bible is false and Christianity is an unholy scam perpetrated by on the masses by ruthless power mongers, we should act with as much kindness, patience and love to those around us as we are capable. The reward of living a just life is simply getting to live a just life. That’s all. The earth may inherit the meek, but at least the meek can lessen the suffering of those around them. Nothing else is promised and nothing else is certain. TS Eliot eloquently summarizes this principle in his poem “Choruses From The Rock”…..
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing
It is our station to care for one another to the best of our abilities regardless what the truth of the universe is. To love without condition is the greatest gift we could bestow on our world no matter what the terms of our existence are. Any philosophy that brings us closer to that ability, be it religious or atheistic, is worthy of our respect and consideration.
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)