Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Satanic Messiah

Satanic Messiah. Some would say the title is deceptive. The Aeron Alfrey cover, perhaps, too, wrapped in a black background and a blood red grotesque in the foreground. With its four, quiet, sparse little tracks spread generously over two 7 inches in a thick, well-constructed gatefold, it is not music that one would likely expect if blindly given a hard copy without any prior knowledge of the Mountain Goats. But it seems that Satanic Messiah wasn’t conceived to win over new listeners. With only 666 copies made and distributed independently, the physical version has already become one of the holy grails of tMG collections and seems targeted for those fans that must own everything tMG related.

Satanic Messiah represents the turning of some corners for the band. For one thing, the band experimented with the pay-what-you-want digital distribution model for which Radiohead made headlines a year earlier with its massive digital pre-release of In Rainbows. While suggesting a price of $6.66 (perhaps a little steep in an age in which ITunes was selling single tunes at $.99 a pop), no payment was required, and no judgments made of those who paid nothing.

The EP’s hard copy release of 666 copies both enthralled the fan base that knew and relished Mr. Darnielle’s pre-occupation with death metal and dark themes, and served as a predecessor for the limited release of the vinyl version of the band’s next full length album, The Life of the World to Come, which offered 777 purple vinyl LPs. It is interesting to note that, while the number 666 and the name of the EP generated very little controversy with the band’s fan base, the 777 copies of Life of the World to Come, and its concept of naming each tune after a bible verse, caused many in the fan’s hardcore base to protest, worried that Mr. Darnielle was turning his band into a Christian one.

While Mr. Darnielle never wavered from his self-identification as a recovering Catholic, neither a devil-worshipper or Christian evangelist, the contrast between the names of the respective albums and the numbers of hard copy releases seems much starker than the difference between the musical content of the two. Quieter and more introspective than the band’s prior full length release, Heretic Pride, Satanic Messiah could almost be seen as a deliberate predecessor piece to The Life of the World to Come, a musical and lyrical complement in many ways. With more piano than guitar, more whispering than full-on singing, Satanic Messiah is comfortable listening, alone and at night, waiting for the ghosts to show themselves.

The work reflects a return by John Darnielle to a more isolated method of recording, albeit a temporary one. While Mr. Darnielle spent much of his earlier career with nothing between him and his audience other than a Panasonic boombox, in the years following his signing with 4AD Records, the band’s albums became more and more complex, adding layers of studio musicians and increased production efforts. With Satanic Messiah, there is almost nothing other than a sparse piano played by Mr. Darnielle. and little, if any, production. While Scott Solter is credited for committing the music to tape, there is no producer attribution.

The EP begins with the teasing ivories of the song Satanic Messiah, the tiny silence of the clean piano notes foretelling what we would later see in droves from Mr. Darnielle on The Life of the World to Come. The melody is so subtle it almost isn't there, until the tenth listen confirms its careful shape and structure. So different from prior offerings, this song is a determined and undeniable shift in the band's direction. There is new ground be covered, it announces bravely.

The lyrics are something else entirely, grim warnings and dark forebodings of a personality cult leader that would be the end of us all. Recorded between May and July of 2008 and released a month before the presidential elections of that year, the parallels between the unnamed antagonist of the song and then-candidate Barack Obama seem hard to ignore. While Mr. Darnielle vigorously denied any allusion to President Obama, the song's opening words, "I saw the posters popping up around the city, pale blue and washed out red," seem an easy reference to the political posters of Shepard Fairey.

Next up is Wizard Buys a Hat. This writer had the good fortune to be in attendance at the band’s charity gig at Brooklyn Masonic Temple, where this song was played for the first time, months before the EP's actual release. Along with an opening act by the quite hilarious John Oliver, the show revealed a version of Wizard far different than the one that ended up on the wax. Loud and raucously boot-stomping, the Masonic Temple version provides a hint of desperation that is largely absent from the studio version. Supported by the deep droning of a bass drum, the narrator sings quietly, gingerly, though his words are still framed with barely unnamed dangers.

Sarcofago Live quickens the pace a bit, with soft, misty piano bits barely accentuating the chug of the acoustic guitar. Mr. Darnielle's words drop in clearly and cleanly over the dual instruments, the sibilants strong and precise. And in the final tune, Gojam Province 1968, we hear the haunting musical suggestions of what we would later hear in Deuteronomy 2:10. What we hear on this EP, and on this song in particular, is the beginning of things to come. We hear the joyful sound of a man falling in love again with an instrument that he will continue to explore, with which he will continue to dance.

And that is Satanic Messiah. A threatening name and ominous cover masking a quiet intense quartet of carefully written and barely produced songs, which seem to somehow float above God and the devil, speaking with the glorious forked tongue of at least one of them.

By P. William Grimm. Mr. Grimm makes his home in San Francisco’s Mission District. His novel The Seventh was published in 2009, and his writings have been published in multiple on-line literary journals such as Annalemma Magazine and Eclectica.

No comments:

Post a Comment