Spirituality and Screaming:
A Theology of Sludge Metal
The nomadic sludge-metal duo has been destroying ears and rattling bodies for 20 years. Somehow, the towers of amp stacks have gotten even bigger and louder along the way. Watch Jucifer level the Black Cat in Washington, D.C., with a morphing medley that includes tracks from its new, Stalingrad-themed album.
from NPR Front Row: July 17, 2013
What is Sludge Metal?
Sludge metal (sometimes referred to simply as "sludge") is a subgenre of heavy metal that melds elements of doom metal and hardcore punk and sometimes incorporates influences from grunge and noise rock. Sludge metal is typically harsh and abrasive; often featuring shouted or screamed vocals, heavily distorted instruments and sharply contrasting tempos. While the style was anticipated by the Melvins from Washington, many of its earliest pioneers were from New Orleans.
A Theology of Sludge Metal
Music is what feelings sound like. At least this is how many of us influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead see things. Whitehead believed that the physical energy of the universe is a form of feeling, and thus that the universe is filled with emotion and subjective forms: that is, with moods. In Whitehead's world there are no vacuous actualities; everywhere we look we see pulsating energy in solid, liquid, and gaseous form. And wherever there is energy there is feeling.
If he is right, then music is an acoustic expression of feeling, enabling us to hear feelings with our ears and feel them with our bodies. We may or may not sympathize with the feelings we hear. We may or may not have had the feeling ourselves. But at the very least we are learning about the feelings of others. The others can be other people, of course; but the others may also be other kinds of beings: animals, plants, rivers, volcanoes, galaxies, ancestors, and spirits. In Whitehead's philosophy even the soul of the universe, even God, is filled with feeling: feelings of compassion for all the feelings in the universe. The receptive side of God's love is empathy: a feeling of the feelings of others and being affected by them. God is love.
This means that music is a kind of theology. It is a way of understanding what God feels like.
Often the moods of music are combined with moods created by movement, color, stagecraft, and drama, and then presented digitally (as above) or in live performance. Music becomes theater or performance. It becomes opera. For my part, I have learned a lot about music as opera from a theater arts professor and rock musician, Professor Danny Grace of the Frontier Circus, and also from one of his own spiritual mentors, the 20th century philosopher of stagecraft, Adolphe Appia. They have helped me see that, when music is presented in live performance and in small venues, the moods do not belong to the musicians alone. They emerge out of interactions between audience and performers.
Moreover, often the very division between audience and performer drops away. A musical event occurs in which the many participants become one even as they are many. Whitehead offers a word for this; he calls it concrescence. For him concrescence is an occasion of experience in which many realities become one reality and the one reality is both shaped by, but different from, the many. It is a whole that includes, but is greater than, the sum of its parts. A theatrical event consists of moments of concrescence in which the many agents -- performers and audience -- contribute to a collective concresence which they jointly feel. This is why Jucifer has been touring for twenty years now. They enjoy the collective concrescence.
I wish Jucifer had another name. I know that they want to remind us of Lucifer, a name for the devil, and that there is something gritty and provocative in this naming. I don't know: maybe the two artists -- Gazelle Amber Valentine and Edgar Liverpool -- really do want to valorize the devil. If so, I can't go there. I am drawn to the idea that God is Love and that love is what it's all about. I pray that the devil will repent of his ways and waltz into gentler ways of being. I think he'd be happier that way.
All of this makes a difference. There's a hell of a lot of violence in the world that I don't want to add to, and some of it is collective. On Sunday mornings I go to a church where we confess our own violence against others, inner if not outer, and my prayers are quite sincere. I have no doubt that there's a Stalin inside me: someone who harms himself and others in the interests of pure power. I don't want to hide from my inner Stalin, but I don't want to make a god of him either. When it comes to destructive impulses within my own psyche, I think it best to be aware of them in a contemplative way: not repressing then or ventilating them but rather letting them become transmuted into something more constructive.
But as a Whiteheadian I also see value in constructive transgression: that is, in forms of forms of behavior which transgress conventional norms in the interests of revealing truth, sharing pain, and fostering a more just world. I see something good when overly complacent people, anaesthetized from the pain of the world in middle-class bubble, are shocked by what is outlandish and jolting, not only in cerebral ways but in sonic and bodily ways. I see wisdom in theaters of the absurd and constructive morbidity. I think somebody needs to put in a good word for Goth culture and I've tried to do a bit of that myself in a Process Theology of Goth.
Moreover, I kind of like the music of Jucifer. It is intense and there is something beautiful -- even spiritual -- about pure intensity. Process theologians propose that there are two forms of aesthetic value in life: harmony and intensity. I have a student who once said to me: "I'll take intensity." When she read Whitehead's Process and Reality she wasn't quite sure about the God is Love part, but she sure liked the part about the ultimate reality of our universe being Creativity. Her name for the ultimate reality was Energy. I began to wonder if there aren't multiple forms of spirituality, some centered around divine love, some around pure Energy, some centered around interconnectedness, some around integration of heart and mind. Indeed, I began to wonder if, perchance there aren't even sixteen forms. See below.
I wonder if God can scream, too. If God is the Soul of the universe, empathically receiving all the lamentations of the world, all the tears and sorrows, all the fears and woes, all the agonies and hardships, all the screams; is it not imaginable that God screams sometimes. At least God must know what screaming is like from the inside out. Outside knowing is knowing about things. Inside knowing is knowing with things. Perhaps when we scream we give voice to God's screaming. Sometimes.
I am sure that for some people sludge metal is a kind of sacred music. Recall the theme in Christianity of death and resurrection. Jesus didn't bypass the death, he went into it and through it. Might sludge metal be, for some, a way of dying, a way of sharing in the spirit of the Lord, by rolling in the deep by rolling in the doom. It is imaginable.
-- Jay McDaniel
Shaivas: The Followers of Shiva
"Following his example, quite a few sadhus walk about naked, symbolising their renunciation of the world of mortals, and rub their body with ashes of their holy fires, symbolic of death and rebirth. Many sadhus wear extremely long hair (jata), again in emulation of Lord Shiva, whose long strands of hair are regarded as the 'seat' of his supernatural powers."
The "house" was a four-story apartment building with advantageous sight lines over the Volga river and the 9th January Square. After German soldiers attacked and tried to occupy the building, a platoon of the Soviet 13th Guards Rifle Division led by Yakov Pavlov was ordered to secure it. They succeeded but their platoon was reduced from 30 to (allegedly) 4. With machine guns, anti-tank rifles, and mortars these few defended the house for several days until reinforcement could arrive. Under Stalin's "Not One Step Back" Order 227, soldiers were expected to die defending their position rather than retreat.
Eventually numbering 25, Pavlov's platoon was able to retain possession of this strategic building as well as save the lives of its residents, who hid in the basement for almost three months until Soviet counterattack succeeded in driving Nazi forces back and Pavlov's unit was relieved.
RIOT OF FLAME
YOU'RE TRYING TO BLOCK A HAMMER
YOU SHOT FRESHLY DOWN
RIOT OF FLAME
BLOOD LIES ON YOUR NAME
YOU'RE NEVER DOWN UNDER
YOUR TINDER GONE UNDER, MY EYE ON THE LANE
LIES ON YOUR FRAME
TAKE OUT MY AMMO
TAKE OUT MY BELAY
DRY UP YOUR FACE
DIVE ON YOUR FACE
YOUR GAUNTLET HOUSE
from за волгой для нас земли нет, released 17 July 2013; guitar and vocals - Gazelle Amber Valentine. drums - Edgar Livengood.
Who in the hell is Jucifer?
by LARS GOTRICH
Jucifer is an odd bird among the droning doom crowd: It's likely to splinter speakers one minute, yet lull you into a false sense of security with a folksy pop song the next. But live, Jucifer is a total body experience — a non-stop, 45-minute HULK OUT of down-tuned distortion deeper than the Mariana Trench.
In a show filmed on Jan. 8, 2013, at Washington, D.C.'s Black Cat, a headbanging horde got an early preview of Jucifer's new concept album,за волгой для нас земли нет (roughly, "There is no land beyond the Volga" in Russian), which is out now. It is, by far, the duo's most relentlessly heavy record and most in line with the metallic ecstasy of Jucifer's live shows. In a landscape of over-produced sludge overload, it's also proof that these road warriors will never turn down.
-- from NPR Front Row: July 17, 2013
за волгой для нас земли нет
Unlike other Jucifer records, the band’s latest release—with a title entirely in Russian—pushes boundaries in terms of theme. While previous albums held more conventional subject matter and music, the two-piece’s latest album crushes like Stalinism and Russia’s iron fist long banished to the depths of history’s gloomy past; the Soviet era. It’s admittedly as weird as it sounds, but it works out well, appearing much denser than other sludge efforts, with songs that trudge along for nearly 10 minutes.
Repetition is key to achieving the forlorn atmosphere. One can feel each heavily distorted riff’s texture with the help of a good pair of headphones, and the end result is a crushing assortment of grinding grooves found exclusively in sludgey music. Likewise, the drumming is as minimalistic as can be and avoids any technical witchcraft as it devastatingly accents each guitar part. Without this brilliant teamwork—only possible in a two-piece like Jucifer—the release wouldn’t be half as strong as it is. The little details truly make a difference.
-- The Sludgelord
Rolling in the Doom
I admit that sludge metal does not sound like a Gregorian Chant or, for that matter, like Adele singing Rolling in the Deep. It’s easy enough to find something spiritual in serenity of the chant or the heartfelt longing of Adele singing about lost love. We all want to roll in the deep the Great Compassion. Rumi understood.
But how about rolling in the doom? Why would anybody want to be baptized in boiling waters of dread and, along the way, have their ears shattered? What kind of ecstasy is this?
Is it a western form of Shiva devotion? Shiva is the god of destruction in traditional Indian society. Is this a way of rolling in ashes of Shiva? Is it a way of widening the heart into the multiplicity of things, including the world of ashes and ruins, for the sake of spiritual enlightenment?
(Can't Get No) Satisfaction
Whitehead says that throughout our lives we are seeking the intensity of satisfaction and adds that, amid the intensity, we also seek harmony. The Chinese tell us that we seek harmony with four realities: other people, the natural world, our innermost hearts, and heaven. It can seem as if sludge metal is aiming at still a fifth kind of harmony: harmony with hell. No question about it; this harmony is intense and not without its pain.
Critics can chalk it up to the immaturity of a bored self-indulgent, maladjusted subculture of self-proclaimed outcasts who have a need to ventilate powerful emotions and perhaps, along the way, harm others and themselves. Perhaps there is truth here. But can’t we also ask if, perchance, they see something? What is it?
Perhaps it is the crushing power of the iron fist as found in authoritarian and power-hungry societies, and perhaps the music is a way of saying “back at you” or “same to you.” Perhaps it is a kind of visceral protest against a world gone awry and also a visceral protest for something on the other side of doom.
Four Moods of Sludge Metal
For my part, I see the enjoyment of sludge metal as blending four spiritual moods: (1) awakening to a creative energy which is beyond good and evil, (2) skepticism and doubt about the social and political structures of the world, (3) shamanic journeying into terrains of the imagination, and (4) a prophetic rejection of authoritarianism;.
I doubt that sludge metal naturally leads to some of the more sanguine spiritual virtues: kindness, for example, or a sense of being loved by God. Perhaps it is preparatory to that, just as, in Christianity, the cross is preparatory to resurrection. But sludge metal sticks with the cross.
In any case there is no need to hide from its truth. We do live in a universe of pure energy, some expressions of which are deeply destructive; in order to understand the destructive side of energy it may be important to journey in it in safe ways, to get to know it in a musical way; and in some circumstances this knowing might help us become more open to the other side of energy, the compassionate side in which life’s fullness is found.
I don’t know. But I do remember that Whitehead says that it is important for philosophy to take into account the multifariousness of life, the dancing fairies and also the crucified saviors. It is only after seeing the many sides, and knowing them in some way, that we can then choose to love the living, tO take care of the vulnerable, and to say No, again and again, to the iron fist.
Sometimes it takes a little screaming.