Hot off the heels of last week’s inaugural entry into Spinal Tapdance’s ‘Listening Arc’ series, I was challenged to a new listening arc by all-around awesome dude Josh Haun of That’s How Kids Die. The challenge: Get from Johnny Cash’s ass-walloping live album At San Quentin to Darkthrone’s third album, the ultra-grim Under A Funeral Moon. As you’ll see in the comments section of that first arc, I was pretty confident I could make easy work of the challenge by way of Metallica’s St. Anger, owing to the fact that the video for the title track was filmed (unless I’m much mistaken) at the very same San Quentin Prison.
Two problems presented themselves, however: First, it made for a pretty easy out, generally bypassing the contortions necessary to get from outlaw country to black metal; and second, it would have required me to suggest that all you fine readers spend some 70-odd minutes of your life listening to St. Anger, and that shit just ain’t happening. Thus, I present to you Spinal Tapdance’s Listening Arc #2: From Cash To Culto (in five moves) which completely disregards and papers over the Metallica Singularity.
1. Johnny Cash, At San Quentin (1969)
The Man in Black has rarely been as imposing as on this rollicking live document from San Quentin Prison. I constantly go back and forth as to whether I prefer this or the previous year’s At Folsom Prison, but basically, you can’t go wrong with either one. Cash covers a wide range of styles on this album (for the record, the disc I’ve got is the so-called “Complete Live At San Quentin,” which cobbles together all 18 tracks, rather than the original 10 of the LP release), from crime and punishment barnburners to country-ish standards to straight-faced spirituals. What I’m really going to pick up on here, however, to allow me to move forward with the listening arc, is the fact that the prison space itself becomes a crucial element in listening to this album. That is to say, this is a fantastic album on most all counts – Cash is in fine form, tearing through his ‘hits’ at breakneck speed and letting loose deranged wolf howls when appropriate, his wife June Carter has a pitch-perfect sloppy Appalachian croon, and his backing band is on fire.
But what really makes this record stand out is the atmosphere. Obviously, Cash revels in playing to the audience of inmates – he provokes a wild chorus of boos anytime he mentions the guards or the warden, and he even penned a tune called “San Quentin,” which he runs through twice to rapturous reception (“San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell / May your walls fall, and may I live to tell,” etc.). Listening closely to this album, then, reveals that the space itself is an instrument, and I’m not just talking about the typical aural component of a live album. This is a live album played to prisoners, and you can literally feel the electricity running through the audience as Cash tears through these outlaw tunes. The concert was also filmed and broadcast for television, and while I’ve never seen the visuals, I almost don’t need to. The audience noise swells and falls, and at times, you can tell there’s some commotion going on out in the audience that’s essentially unconnected to what’s going on onstage. It makes for a crackling, dangerous sound, but more than that, it communicates a sense of the prison as a lived space and a living space, which is precisely how we transition into the rest of the listening arc.
2. Set Fire To Flames, Sings Reign Rebuilder (2001)
Musically, this debut album from this collective composed of members of the Canadian post-rock elite (Godspeed You Black Emperor, A Silver Mt Zion, Hanged Up, etc., etc.) shares very little ground with Johnny Cash. This is a generally sparse, experimental album, featuring found sound snippets, ambient space, and flashes of chamber-esque classicism. Here’s the connection, though: This album was recorded in a dilapidated house, and you can literally hear the house itself contributing to the sounds of the album. Floors creak, strings echo, snatches of conversation are caught through hallways and around corners, police sirens pass in the street. This house becomes as much another musical instrument as the brushed drum kit or the keening violin. This is desolate, desperate music for slow urban collapse, with only the faintest shred of hope blossoming.
3. The Gault, Even As All Before Us (2005)
Heartbreakingly, this is the only album The Gault ever produced, and it is probably one of the most criminally underrated albums in all of metal. I’ve never heard anything that sounds quite like it, and the atmosphere of unpretentious sorrow it evokes is absolutely unparalleled. So, not a cheerful album, this. I suppose it’s somewhat generally in the style of drone-soaked doom, but the wailing vocals are entirely their own beast, and the slow trudging pace and increasingly epic scope of the songs throughout the album bespeak a sepia-hued Americana that may just as well be the fog-drenched London of late 19th century industrial blight. This album takes the last few shreds of hope from Set Fire To Flames and, well, burns them on the pyre of its unrelenting realism.
4. Weakling, Dead As Dreams (2000)
The Gault was a project that eventually grew out of the demise of a previous San Francisco band, Weaking, who also – tragically – only ever produced one album. But what an album it is. Dead As Dreams is a true landmark recording in American black metal, taking the speed and grim intensity of all them damn Scandinavians at face value, but shooting it through with a touch of avant-garde melodicism and structural experimentalism. Or, let’s put it a different way, shall we? Wolves In The Throne Room would straight-up NOT EXIST if it weren’t for this album. And again, unlike the forest-dancing escapism of their Northern European ‘peers’, this album has a much grittier feel, a grounding in the real lived experience of a major American metropolis. This album defines epic black metal in a way that most folk-besotted frotteurs can only grasp in their wettest of wet dreams, and it really signified that American black metal need not bow to the aesthetic conventions of the genre’s originators.
5. Demoncy, Joined In Darkness (1999)
As we’re just about wrapping up this listening arc, we’re going to keep it in the American family. Demoncy are a decidedly less experimental outfit than Weakling, but Joined In Darkness is nevertheless another landmark recording in the annals of American black metal. It’s regressive and atavistic in all those primally satisfying ways, and the thing blasts ahead like a great hulking beast dragging the bones of devoured animals down into the deepest recesses of a lightless cavern. This is reverb used not to intensify and kick around the shrill howls of a vocalist, but rather to sound a great black lake. While not quite as primitive as true American black metal instigators like Von or Havohej, Demoncy is, to these ears, infinitely more satisfying. And, beyond the sound of a phantom bulldozer plowing through a field of ghostly birch trees, the reason this stacks up as the perfect transition into Darkthrone is due to a nice sequencing coincidence: the penultimate track on this Demoncy album, “The Dawn of Eternal Damnation,” follows the same basic model of the final track on Darkthrone’s Under A Funeral Moon, “Crossing the Triangle of Flames”: it starts out brisk and blasting, twists its way around some gnarled-root riffs, and then settles into a stubborn, plodding death march to close out the album in a true dark dirge.
6. Darkthrone, Under A Funeral Moon (1993)
From the brittle, vampiric opening shot of “Natassja In Eternal Sleep,” to the aforementioned infinite-march-toward-a-corroded-horizon of “Crossing the Triangle of Flames,” Under A Funeral Moon is a bona fide classic. The fact that is maybe my least favorite of Darkthrone’s absolutely untouchable black metal quadrilogy (A Blaze in the Northern Sky through Panzerfaust) says less about the weakness of this album (of which there is none) than about the strength of those albums that surround it. Nevertheless, this is probably Darkthrone at their most white-knuckled, wide-eyed straight-ahead black metal dogmatism. Sure, Transilvanian Hunger is arguably more ‘straight-ahead’ in certain ways, but it accomplished that feeling through a far more peculiar, almost avant-garde sense of repetition and minimalist melody than Under A Funeral Moon is a better analogue for such early black metal classics as Bathory’s Under (coincidence?) The Sign Of The Black Mark. The closing sludge of this album, featuring a tolling bell crumbling and collapsing in quarter-time, should draw your mind back to the closing of Demoncy’s album, and back through other American landmarks, with a quick detour up to the Frozen North, and then back down, screaming through aeons of memory and tradition, to the true American outlaw, the true Black of the sorely-missed Johnny Cash.
Okay, friends. The first Reader Challenge has been answered, but it’s up to you to let me know if it’s been answered successfully. Did I lose the plot at any point throughout this Arc? Feel like calling me on any bullshit choices? Pipe up, then; it’s hard to hear you over all this racket. Thanks to Josh for a very worthy Listening Arc challenge.
So, then, you – yeah, you out there, with the soft voice and big thoughts and eager fingers: What’s next? What’s your Listening Arc challenge? Bring it on, the lot of you.