Ginger Nuts of Horror
I recently tried to explain to my girlfriend why I felt that a certain album was “important” to me. I gave it an off-the-cuff shot, floundered, lost my way, and then gave up without satisfaction.
It got me thinking: why exactly did I think of the album Panopticon by the band Isis as an “important” feature of my life? Why not just say, “It’s awesome”, or “It’s ace”, or any one of the other overused complimentary adjectives that I apply to the things that I enjoy? The conclusion I came to was what gave me the idea for writing this article: because, for every one of those 59 minutes of the record’s playing time, Panopticon takes me away from the horror.
This isn’t going to be a journalistic article, where I describe the band’s intentions, the album’s concept or where it hit in the Billboard charts; it’s simply going to be my own personal reflection of what will no doubt be my lifelong love for 7 pieces of devastatingly affecting music.
Most of us from the horror community are painfully aware that life isn’t always a delightful Disney-themed wonderland. Bad things happen to good people, there aren’t always happy endings, and suffering is an undeniable feature of the human experience. Many of us have probably encountered depression at some point, and many will use the horror genre itself to soften the blows that life rains down on us by offering a distraction, a place to wallow, a pressure release, or a cathartic path towards the acceptance of life’s darker moments.
Also, watching or reading about heads popping off and big, scary-ass tentacled beasties is pretty fucking cool.
But there are also times that, for me, reading or watching horror has the opposite effect. I have always loved, and assume that I always will love, the horror genre, but for all that adoration I cannot spend every waking moment immersed in blood, pain and the dying. I need comedy, I need realism, I need innocent animation, I need wonder, I need kink, and I need thought-provoking, mind-expanding entertainment too.
Each of these moods (as well as many others) tick some of the boxes that I need ticked depending on my mood, but there is one place I can venture at any time, because I know that Isis’s Panopticon will always offer me a rewarding hour.
When I turned 17 or 18, I developed a close friendship with my pal Mike that allowed me to develop my weirder, more extreme genre interests. Up until then, I had kept my love of both horror and heavy music “under the radar” to a certain extent, as I’d never had a strange enough, sick enough, mature enough mate to share it with. Then Mike came along, and I moved from watching horror films on my own to viewing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Miike Takashi’s Audition with a partner-in-crime. My musical tastes also shifted from Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach to the blast-filled supremacy of Emperor and Anaal Nathrakh within the space of a year.
It wasn’t just the foul and depraved that I discovered more about during this time. Our shared love of the metal magazine Terrorizer also introduced us to audio obscurities that were less horrifying, but no less mind-expanding, than the grindcore and extreme metal I was becoming aware of.
At some point during this year of musical discovery, I heard Isis. Their album Oceanic did not move me immediately, but I could not deny that it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was at about this time that I discovered that music did not have to have traditional verse/chorus structures. Black metal and death metal had hinted at this, but for the most part even more epically-structured bands such as Opeth and Nile offered definable structures that echoed elements of traditional song-writing.
Isis were different.
Isis were often said to play “post metal”, but for me there is no genre term that does them justice, as there are also shades of hardcore, ambient, drone, post-rock, shoegaze, sludge and the avant-garde to be found throughout their discography. Their sound was no doubt heavily influenced by the sonic behemoths Neurosis, but without the attention-demanding vocals and with more organic, less abrasive shifts between musical passages. There were also shades of bands such as Swans and Godflesh, and even some Tool (the bassist of whom, Justin Chancellor, appears on Panopticon). Isis’s legacy continues to influence bands such as Russian Circles, Cult of Luna and Pelican, who have taken what Isis did and shaped it into new forms and moved it in new directions.
For me, that first listen to Oceanic failed to give me that heart-stopping shock of intensity and revulsion that I craved from extreme music. It ebbed and it flowed, and while it had heavy moments there were also passages of tranquillity. There were even moments of – ewwww – “beauty”, that just did not cut it for me at the time.
A few years later, the parts of Isis that I had disliked became the reasons for my now long-standing love of the now-departed band, which has helped me through dark times and bright, and added an edge of the epic and majestic to a life of the usual ups and downs. And it all started when I put Panopticon into my old compact disc player and pressed “play”.
The album, and why it matters to me
I remember that first listen. By a strange twist of fate I must have had the player on shuffle, because I heard the haunting build of its 4th track, Wills Dissolve, first, and assumed it was the album opener. I do wonder if I would have loved the album with such instant intensity if my initial impression had been the crushing barbarism of the opening notes of its real first track, So Did We.
In reality, the album begins with a brief but steamrollering barrage of distorted guitars and abrasive roars. These are not the violent, aggressive growls of a death metal vocalist, though; Aaron Turner’s howls are drenched in pain, yet somehow soaring and empowering too. Like the album’s brutal attacks and its oddly reassuring interludes, the effect of Panopticon’s monolithic guitars, the intricate yet delicately balanced drum work, and Turner’s simultaneously hopeful yet life-drained cries, the contradictory elements are what keep me coming back over the years. Somehow, Panopticon simply feels … honest.
Unlike songs that aim to describe a consistent mood or tone, each of Panopticon’s tracks is a journey that touches numerous points of the emotional compass. There is melody and harmony but also near-atonal singing and bludgeoning riffs, and this balance of the ugly and the shimmeringly gorgeous never fails to give me the equilibrium I need from life. It’s an album that feels detached from archetypal emotions such as happiness and sorrow, and offers perspective by giving me a panoramic view of my own life, an acceptance of tragedy and fear, and an embracing of all that has happened and all that is yet to come. That’s life, it tells me. Beautiful and awe-inspring, suffocating and claustrophobic yet limitless and expansive.
It won’t be for everyone, though no record ever is. However, for anyone who has ever felt the resonance of an album that dares to pursue its own singular vision of what music can be and has succeeded in creating something momentous, I recommend sitting down sometime and listening to Panopticon from beginning to end. I hope that for those 59 minutes, you can also see why it takes me away from the horror.
Out of interest, what do you listen to or watch that takes you away from the horror, when all that gore and suffering becomes a bit too much?
The album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xA2AJIiw0p8
and while the effect is hardly optimistic I do find it invigorating and cathartic.
'Like all the best extreme horror, What Good Girls Do leaves you with the urge to go and bleach your soul after reading...'
Alex Davis, creator of Film Gutter
She lives with no name.
She has never left her room.
All she has ever known is pain and abuse.
Today, she will breathe fresh air for the first time, feel sunshine against her skin and even witness human kindness.
But she has a point to make – a bleak, violent point – and when she meets her neighbour, Serenity, she finds the perfect pupil.
Forced to endure a lesson distilled from a nightmarish existence, Serenity must face unflinching evil, witness the unspeakable, and question her most deeply-held views, until at last she has no choice but to fight for her family’s survival.