July 16, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Scott Cheshire's High as the Horses' Bridles is one of the year's strongest debuts. This epic novel brilliantly explores themes of family, faith, and desire.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Cheshire tackles life's biggest issues through the person of Josiah, whose evangelistic heritage is finally revealed, in a narrative studded with gems of insight about the human condition. An impressively crafted literary first novel."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
A Soundtrack for Apocalypse
There will come a falling rain of fire. Smell the crackling oven air and tall burning trees, as the earth splits open like a mouth. A river of blood fills the streets. God is pissed. Or maybe there will come a firestorm of flesh-melting mass annihilation, a nuclear mushroom cloud. City blocks and buildings turned to dust. Or maybe the water levels rise, and we drown. Regardless, we all die. Or most of us do anyway, when it comes to apocalypse. And you can bet it will already be an uber-dramatic scene, so a soundtrack might seem like overkill. Nevertheless…
When I was a boy, in 1980's Cold War America, the End of the World was alive and well, on everybody's minds, on TV, in books, certainly at church, and at home (also sort of church). The Apocalypse was coming any day now. And I'm still a sucker for that kind of thing. I saw the Armageddon cheese-fest that is The Day After Tomorrow on opening day, and sat way up front so that great tidal wall of water would seem even more monstrous. But as I got older, I became less and less interested in that particular take on the word, in the gaudy, bloody, puerile sense of apocalypse (which is actually something of a neologism, a modern interpretation), and became more interested in the literal, classic sense of the word. Apocálypsis, from ancient Greek, means an "un-covering," "a lifting of the veil," "a revelation" (hence the biblical book). And in this sense, I must admit, I continue to be one apocalyptic mother*ucker. Really, all writers are. Otherwise what are we writing for? If not for some uncovering? If not to find out something previously unknown about ourselves? If not to break through the veil of "reality" and access some new place of meaning? If not to leave the body and transcend?
In that spirit, I give you ten pieces of music especially apocalyptic, in every sense of the word. Which means there is but one place to start: Slayer.
10 – "War Ensemble," Slayer, Season in the Abyss
This list would be incomplete without metal, and "War Ensemble" is a rallying bloodcurdling battle cry. When Tom Araya rages, like a warlord possessed, and screams from the hills – "Waaaaaaaaar!" – it sounds like the last thing you'll ever hear while running for your life. This is the sound, not of war, but the desire for war, for the End, the sound of bloodlust. It's thrilling, frightening, and relentless.
9 – "The End of all Things," NoMeansNo, Wrong
NoMeansNo are the evil clowns of punk rock. Equal parts punk, jazz, prog, and metal, they have been called "Motörhead after art school," and Wrong is their masterpiece. "The End of all Things" is about as twisted and seductive as they get, with a collection of gleefully demonic and lovely lady voices singing along with the band as they all hymn heavenward, over and over and over: "Hear the angles sing/ This is the end of all things!" The whole show is closing down, and they are just plain giddy.
8 – "World of Dogs," Death Grips, No Love Web Deep
Death Grips are the future. The music is lusty, menacing, and manic, and "World of Dogs" manages to make a stuttering chorus of "It's all suicide, suicide, it's all suicide" actually sound sexy. It's a song for a post-apocalyptic world without humanity, all animal, and it works because we soon come to recognize that world as this one. "Left for dead, but I'm not dead yet"—Death Grips barks. The dogs are coming, but I will not go gently.
7 – "My Sweet Lord," George Harrison
This song scared the shit out of me when I was a kid. Yes, it's sweet, bracingly sincere, and sounds like a lullaby sung by the Buddha. But in the 1980's there existed a palpable fear of "cults," especially in my house where family and friends found it necessary to daily deny accusations that we were in one. And so when I heard Harrison and the halo of voices around him chanting—
Hare Hare Hare Rama
--and when I heard, “I want to go to you, I really want to go with you, my lord,” all I heard was a longing for rapturous death.
6 – "Massage the History." Sonic Youth
This is where things get really interesting, for me anyway, because apocalypse is essentially abut the manipulation of time, our perception of it, and mastering death. Kim Gordon (I had posters of her on my wall in high school) sounds here like she's in mourning: "Wishing you were here by me/ Wishing you were here/ Let's massage the history." It eventually devolves into one of their wonderfully nosiey abstract guitar spirals, like its about to fall apart and die. But it doesn't. The melody returns, and so does Gordon: "Here's a song, here's a song/ To massage history along/ Come with me to the other side/ Not everyone makes it out alive." It's their last song, on their last album, recorded in the throes of a dying marriage, and it's gutting and perfect.
5 – "Countdown to Armageddon," Public Enemy
In just one minute and forty seconds, Public Enemy makes the most pithy and powerful musical statement on apocalypse. The opening track of their second album, amidst the roar of a screaming crowd, "Countdown…" starts with the blare of an air raid siren, followed by one loud voice: "Peace! Armageddon has been in effect! Go get a late pass." Peace? Armageddon? At the same time? Oh yes, because like it or not, death is life, life is death, and war and peace are happening now and everywhere, always have been. It's a wake up call, an alarm to popular consciousness: go get a late pass. Every moment is eschatological.
4 – Ascension, John Coltrane
This is the stuff. And it's fitting it follows Public Enemy because there would be no P.E. without Coltrane's aching bellow and skronk. Coltrane makes me cry. Coltrane makes me feel alive. But more than anything else he takes me elsewhere, off this plane. And Ascension is all about elsewhere. A seven-man front line of horns, they were given few cues save theme and chords, but most important, a directive: go headlong and ascend toward crescendo. For some it's meaningless noise. For others, like me, it's the sound of eleven men reaching out for Jacob's Ladder. It's a try at heaven, or maybe better, at the heavens, to break through the earthy veil into cosmos.
3 – "The Moon is your Moon," Edible Flowers
I have listened to this album thousands of time. Literally. I listen to it every time I write. It's in my blood, by now, not to mention the acknowledgements of the novel. I first saw Nels Cline and Devin Sarno perform as Edible Flowers over a decade ago, and it remains one of the most frightening and beautiful things I've ever witnessed. One guitar. One bass. And somehow they make the formless overwhelming sound of space itself. Outer space. This is the sound of the limninal beyond, the sound of interstellar regions, what might stretch on between us and death. Which is sort of comforting because it's scary at first but eventually it reveals music arrestingly rich with beauty and meaning.
2 – Pulse Demon, Merzbow
"Music" cannot, has never, and will never get more extreme than this. Imagine hell as the never-ending drilling of a healthy tooth. Merzbow makes Slayer sound like Donnie and Marie, and "Pulse Demon" is about as severe as it gets. This is the edge of music, of sound in general, it's been said of his work. Beyond that awaits nothingness, the void. I'm not suggesting you listen. Don't. I'm saying I'm happy there is someone in the world who's made his life's work (since 1979) a constant reach for the limits of sound, to see what those limits reveal, no matter how brutal.
1 – Disintegration Loops, William Basinski
Basinski, a celebrated avant-garde composer who often works with loops, was trying to save some old magnetic tape recordings by transferring them to digital format. As the transfer progressed the magnetic tape itself began to disintegrate. This happened on September 11, 2001. At least according to the myth now accrued around the work. The recording itself was of a mournful horn, string, and percussive loop. Sort of what one might expect to hear as a beloved fallen king's body was taken through the streets on the shoulders of his sons. It is heart wrenching, but also elegiac, even as the loop itself eventually erases. Basisnki: "The music isn't just decaying — it does, it dies — but the entire life and death of each of these unique melodies was recorded to another medium for eternity. So that blew my mind, as someone who grew up Catholic, to see that that is a possibility." This is the sound of corporeal passing and decay. Pure melancholy. It's also weirdly comforting, even alluring. Why? Because it gives death shape. It gets us close. It's repetitive and for that promises meaning and revelation, and so we wait, headphones on, weeping, hoping no one's watching, and we wait.
And then it's gone.
Scott Cheshire and High as the Horses' Bridles links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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