Monday, July 23, 2007


My equivocally favorite contemporary literary critic is Harold Bloom. (I say equivocally because Mr. Bloom occasionally cannot resist his urge to be an onanistic know-it-all.) In his life-changing (for me) book The Western Canon he develops the compelling concept of strangeness as a primary consideration to the canonicity, or primacy, of a work of literature. In an oversimplified nutshell, a great work possesses a nature that either assimilates us (changes what we understand to be the very nature of that artform) or forces us to encounter it on its own terms, forever holding us at an intrigued distance. I think in many ways this concept applies as well to the modern music canon as it does to the great works of literature (hence the subtitle of this blog...)

How quintessentially strange (and therefore great) is Shriekback's 'Nemesis', then? I marvel at how fiercely it holds its own, forcing us to reconsider what a great song is capable of being and doing.

After a single beat introduction, 'Nemesis' just crashes into existence, full throttle. It's rock, though there is something resembling a funky scratch disco guitar in there. The song bangs in an industrial fashion, but it's generally more organic than what we commonly consider industrial. There's plenty of synthesizer, but not in a particularly new wave form. It's not quite goth, though it's gotten plenty of play with the goths, and there is the subject matter...

If there is a painted allegory to 'Nemesis', it's Hieronymus Bosch's The Last Judgement. If there's a literary equivalent, it's The Book Of Revelations. I'm not kidding; consider the chorus: 'Priests and cannibals / prehistoric animals / Everybody happy as the dead come home / Big black nemesis / parthenogenesis / No one move a muscle as the dead come home.' Throughout the song is a laundry list of Biblical ('Very little food is forbidden') and apocalyptic ('my dreams are visions') references, involving torture, murder and a freaky cast of characters.

'Nemesis' is a vivid description of a monotheistic world that has been overrun by hedonism and is just about to feel the full wrath of its creator. 'How bad it gets / you can't imagine / The burning wax / the breath of reptiles / God is not mocked / He knows our business / Karma could take us / at any moment.' The Greeks and Romans who figure contextually in Revelations are explicitly referenced. Rather than an easy horror movie narrative, this song is disarmingly sophisticated in its imagery.

Without hearing the song, one might expect that 'Nemesis' is quite the downer, a real kill-joy. Quite the contrary; the male lead vocals are an oddly satisfied snarl, and the everybody-and-their-screeching-sister backing vocals are a Dionysian frenzy accompanied, one imagines, by dithyrambic flailing. If Rome is burning, Shriekback are fiddling away, adding fervor and fanning the flames. I am hard pressed to come up with another song that describes the end of the world like the announcer at an S&M halftime show. The strongest candidate might be Siouxsie & The Banshees' Pompeiians 'caught in the throes' as their city is buried in dust, and that song is a masterpiece, but it is told through the eyes of dispassionate archaeologists, and its tone is austere in comparison to the exhilaration of 'Nemesis'.

The most alarming moment in the song slips by in the second verse, perhaps without the listener realizing its implications at first. The narrator has told us that 'evil is an exact science / carefully, correctly wrong' and has described drinking elixirs from the juices of the dying. But he changes tone for a moment to insist, 'We are not monsters / We're moral people / And yet we have / the strength to do this.' Soon enough, though, he's back at it: 'Cover him up / I think we're finished...'

Not monsters? Moral people? How do you figure? In the midst of this chaos of sound and barrage of destructive images, the perpetrators assert that they are possessed of balance, humanity, discernment of right and wrong. For me that is profound - because if it's true, these people are the same as you and I, but as the apocalypse approaches they have sold out like the Vichy Regime, and are looting every shop window they can break.

That kernel of pitch-black darkness is the deepest layer of this brilliant song. On top, a noisy pre-industrial goth anthem. Next down, a creepy narrative of a deathly carnival. Below that, an erudite survey of apocalyptic symbols (with a dark sense of humor, don't forget.) And underneath it all, the conviction that when we are faced with our own moment of revelation, many of us will knowingly choose evil and enjoy it. Just think, you can dance your way through the whole thing.

Shriekback have been a vibrant, ever-changing, on-again, off-again project for 25 years, exploring different musics with different musicians. At the time of 'Nemesis' their ranks included former members of Gang Of Four, XTC, and Damned, and the sublime Clare Torry, who has a remarkable history of collaborative vocal credits, and whose backing vocals are the icing on this cake. Oil & Gold, the album that contains 'Nemesis' in a loose song cycle, is an excellent place to start with Shriekback, but know that surprises await you before that album and after.

'Nemesis' for me is Shriekback at their zenith, firing on all cylinders, encouraging us to feel very viscerally the erotic asphyxiation our culture has designed for its fate. (I urge you, too, to seek out the excellent 'arch deviant' remix; while it squanders some of the momentum of the original, it ramps up the dithyrambic vocals to even greater heights. Consider the music video, too, that trucks freely in visual references from Bosch to Picasso.) 'Nemesis' sets us amazedly on a dance floor that foreshadows another dance with far greater implications.

Shriekback official website