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Here is another entry in the rock bestiary. (For more on the bestiary, the rock bestiary, and its theological significance, see here.) For this new entry, I submit an entire review by critic Ben Ratliff of a recent concert in New York City by the Canadian band “Duchess Says.” The review can be found here.
This is the best entry by far in the bestiary. Almost every line of Ratliff’s review is a report of gesture and its sonic significance. It includes lines like this about lead singer Annie-Claude Deschenes: “She sang words direly, squeaked nonsense, hollered and squealed and chanted and, occasionally, for effect, screamed. None of this was expressing the attitude of the song; emotionally they seem neutral. She was expressing their sound content, singing their riffs, as in ‘Narcise,’ or their beats, as in ‘Tenen Non Neu,’ which sounded like her own version of konnakol, the South Indian system of vocalizing rhythm syllables. For a quieter song she made a downward motion with her hands: everyone sat down cross-legged. She enacted her movements at the center of a circle, then softly crashed into a few men, rolling over them.”
This video from their 2010 performance at SXSW shows something of what this looks and sounds like:
Ben Ratliff, this writing, this report of other worlds summoned in and through this rock, is exquisite. Are you writing especially for us at R&T?
A while back here at R&T, I proposed the idea of a rock bestiary, building on theological bestiaries from the medieval world. I have periodically updated the bestiary with images of rockish animalia. (Click on “bestiary” under Categories on the left hand side of the page to see other entries.)
Here is the latest, concerning lead vocalist Jens Kidman of Meshuggah, from a Nate Chinen review: “torso hunched forward, head bowed, one foot propped on a stage monitor. He resembled a vulture on a perch, scanning for carrion.”
Tommy Beaudoin, New York City
Posted in: Bestiary,Fandom,General,Musical Performance,Somatica Divina by Tom Beaudoin on February 5, 2012
Rock and Theology contributor Christian Scharen recently replied to my 2009 R&T post outlining the idea of a “somatica divina,” and I wanted to take this post and the next to write a brief reply, because so much of what many of us take to be important in the overlap of rock and roll culture and theological culture has to do with what we find sacred, divine, holy or spiritually worthy about sounds of, in and through bodies. So it is worth giving a little more time to these questions.
Chris, thanks for following up on my brief outlining of a theology of divine bodies, ‘somatica divina,’ in musical performance. Reading it again, I still believe in the probative potential of such an analysis. Were I rewriting that introduction to somatica divina today, I might want to figure in more the fetishistic dimension involved in appreciating bodily citations, how complex the process of spiritual cathection might be for us as viewers/fans, and also for those of us who are also musicians. By spiritual cathection, I mean: the way we are situated by personal and cultural history to consent, with various levels of conscious awareness, to placing ourselves in relations to our own bodies, and the bodies of others, that conduct some power for more life. I mention “fetishistic dimension” because this allowance-of-a-power-for-more-life-through-musical-bodies-in-performance often has to do with a more-than-ordinary appreciation for spans of bodies, or the way those spans are inhabited and displayed (what I call bodily wherewithals). By spans of bodies, I mean an appreciation for these fingers, this torso, those hips, that jaw. By bodily wherewithals, I mean the way those shoulders cantakerously shake, how that hand reaches with luscious confidence across those frets, the knuckle-fist pulled away from the guitar’s pickup like that note electrocuted us all.
I have made reference to these elements of a somatica divina in some posts here at R&T where I have tried to catalogue entries in a rock and roll bestiary. There was an entry on Grinderman here, Salome here, and a related piece on Reb Beach of Winger here.
I will follow up soon with a few more thoughts to round out these reflections…
Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Alastair Macaulay in the New York Times transcribes Melaku Belay’s performance at a mid-August concert in New York City:
Melaku “can turn either the upper or the lower body into an electrifying vehicle of rapid pulsation. One dance was all to do with his throwing his feet out before him (as if on hot coals). Sometimes the feet alternated, sometimes he hopped, and on one occasion, while hopping brilliantly, he mimed strumming on the other leg, which he kept stretched out like a guitar.”
“In later dances he showed how he could play his shoulders, his neck, his head and his whole torso like percussion instruments. In one number his shoulders kept chiming in like chords in music. Elsewhere he shook or vibrated muscles at the base of the neck — together or with left and right playing against each other — and he also isolated and vibrated his head.”
“At the climax of one amazing dance cadenza, his own body became a trill — initiated, it seemed, from somewhere around the diaphragm and midspine, but with the whole body shaken into a blur — and then he began to turn in a traveling diagonal across the stage.”
Here is an intimate video of Melaku Belay:
Respectfully submitted to R&T readers as another entry in the bestiary.
Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
In 2009, I proposed a rock bestiary here at Rock and Theology. As a further entry (search ‘bestiary’ for earlier entries), I propose this description of Neil Young from a recent show in New York City, as told by critic Ben Ratliff:
Neil Young is “not a wistful old man; he’s tense and obdurate even in the presence of pleasant or affirming words. Singing the first lines of ‘Sign of Love,’ presumably written for his wife — ‘When we go for a little walk / out on the land / When we’re just walkin’ and holdin’ hands / You can take it as a sign of love’ — he bared his teeth and looked ready to bite.”
“The Les Paul’s dark, fat, mattelike sound felt doomed out and righteous, to be admired from afar, but the Gretsch’s was something you’d want to take home and live with: brighter, more expressive, more fluent with its feedback. (He shook the Gretsch, holding it by the headstock and swinging it near the amplifier, toward the end of ‘Walk With Me,’ his encore.)”
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, USA
A year and a half ago, I proposed the idea of a “rock bestiary” that could be filled in over time with the animals — or the animalities — of rock, inducing wonder about the relationships between rock performers’ lived, bodied characteristics, features, wherewithals, and escapades, and their power to communicate some real claim to attention. In this way, I was inspired by the earlier Christian theological bestiary tradition, and still am. So one task of such a bestiary is to catalogue such animalities.
Toward that end, Grinderman’s recent show at Best Buy Theater in Manhattan gave much material. Or rather, Ben Ratliff’s splendid review of it did. Warren Ellis, guitarist and violinist, apparently showed why he deserves his own bestiary entry. Here is Ratliff’s vivid report about Ellis, who is a “brilliant performer, a muse, and a demolition expert”:
“Mr. Ellis, with a beard out of Leviticus, created half the band’s sound on Sunday whether he was touching an instrument or not. He played solos, some on a four-string tenor guitar, of such constant textual warping and concentrated messy power that they lighted up each song. He ran a violin through a wah-wah pedal and made an overwhelming throb, almost unpitched, then laid it down and quickly adjusted the sound while the little instrument screamed on. He held two maracas in one hand and hammered them down at perfect accent points on a clenched high-hat cymbal.
“And he practiced … lurching and hunching, whip-around leg kicks to turn his back at the audience. During ‘Evil!’ he lay flat on the floor, raising his head to shout the song’s key word in a kind of gasping situp. He shook his violin bow at us, raggedy with broken horsehair; this was all part of the music, too.”
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
While reading New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s review of a NYC concert featuring the bands Salome and Landmine Marathon, my thoughts went back to the rock bestiary I’ve slowly adumbrated here at R&T. My initial description of a rock bestiary is here, and there have been many entries since then.
Ratliff served up a splendid meditation fit for a bestiary entry. Describing Salome’s lead singer Kat, Ratliff writes: “Early in the band’s second song — “Master Failure” — Kat brought the microphone to her face with both hands, enveloped two small fists around it and began a deep, dreadful growl, altering the tone with the shape of her mouth, something like yawwheeawhhhheee. She might have been singing words; maybe not. Hard to tell. It was more an earth sound than a body sound; the imagined howl of undersea canyons.”
A rock bestiary, should one ever exist, would be focused on the specific and eventful ways that Holy Mother of God! Take a listen!
A rock bestiary, should one ever exist, would be focused on the specific and eventful ways that rock culturers — musicians, fans, roadies, and more — yield up bodily wherewithals that are the potential fruit of, and power for, more life. Or should I say, with reference to Kat’s “earth sound,” that rock musicians generate ever new ways of conducting into, or at least gesturing toward, a way of being that theology should be able to appreciate, a way of being that I would call (following Gilles Deleuze) “faith in this world.”
Music critic Ben Ratliff has a discerning and scrumptiously written review, in today’s New York Times, of a recent NYC show by the metal band High on Fire. (A band that, by the way, has been practicing serial monogamy with its bassists, having run through four in the last dozen years.) Ratliff’s coy conjuring prompts me to add an entry to Rock and Theology’s “rock bestiary.”
First, a refresher course: Because it has been a while since I’ve mentioned the bestiary, regular readers may have forgotten this category for theorockish arcana, and newer readers may never have encountered it. Here is a part of how I described it at the hazy dawn of its invention in this post from 14 July 2009:
“Bestiaries were medieval theological works that illustrated and described animals in moral and theological terms so as to emphasize particular qualities of salvation or Christian teachings. (And as modern theology-of-animals defenders might also note, so as to schematize the place of animals, fanciful or real, in the economy of salvation.) So, too, no one with theological awareness can fail to note the provocative character of the ‘bestiary’ of ‘rock animals’ — that is, living entities from rock culture (musicians, fans, roadies, and more) that are picture-able and catalogue-able — bearing some promise of spiritual insight. […] But now with the notion of ‘bestiary,’ I want to signal the pictured ‘rock animals’ as moral teachers of a kind, but above all as possible soundboards for a theological life today. Here the picture, still and framed, becomes the possible rock icon (and/or idol). Here we meditate on the gesture, the act, the pose, the singular bodily conclave. (We can even start with the observation that many rock fans have not only deep attachments to whole concerts or songs, but also to specific pictures of fan culture or rock performance, in which a facial expression, hip pitch, or conjunction of hands is, in short, everything.)”
Now back to Ratliff on High on Fire. For our bestiary, hear the description of guitarist and lead singer Matt Pike:
“Shirtless, tattooed, dirty looking, he stood straight up, sneakers together, his guitar neck at 2 o’clock, pumping his chords at a strange angle across the strings, wincing or looking terrified between croupy roars.”
Other entries in the bestiary can be read here.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
A few months ago, I celebrated music critic Ben Ratliff of the New York Times’ cooking up vivid characterizations of the frontman David Yow, of the band Jesus Lizard. In today’s Times, he and Yow have done it again, and provide another occasion for an entry into our rock bestiary. (For more on the notion of such a bestiary, see this earlier post.)
In today’s review of a Jesus Lizard show on Tuesday at Irving Plaza, Ratliff again free-associates to Yow’s palette of rockish gestures, showing smartly how distinctive rock is at inventing rituals (of playing live and of enjoying live music through writing about it) that open onto spiritual-political possession and dispossession.
Ratliff writes, “Mr. Yow, no kind of natural singer, had to invent his voice. It’s all muted middle-range: nervous honks, pathetic moans, sudden belligerent shouts, always accompanied by a nearly blank facial expression. His physical language is contained, improvisational, swinging between extremes: he writes and screams like Sean Penn’s famous scene in ‘Mystic River’ — with Mr. Yow you always fill in the invisible cops holding him down — then flaps his wings serenely, or gives the crowd a fey, palms-out, fuggedaboutit wrist-wave. He seems fascinated by menacing acts, but tends to turn them into something else.”
A bible of ritualized idiosyncrasies, as rock so often is. Do those of us who relate to biblical religions have the patience to let this worldly bible of ritualized idiosyncrasies show us the extent to which our performances of faith are dependent on the ritualized idiosyncrasies of our own bibles?
New York City, New York, United States
The Jesus Lizard sounds like a made-to-order curio for our rock bestiary. But they’re a late ’80s-90s band with considerable indie credibility (or for the more refined, “distinction“), who are recently revived for the tour circuit. (Here they are live with “Mouth Breather” from 1991. I could never get into them, but I’ve long since learned that beyond the limits of personal preferences are good reasons to be theologically inquisitive about musics that move people.)
Critic Ben Ratliff’s review of their recent show at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival includes a vivid snapshot for our bestiary courtesy of singer David Yow. Ratliff writes in the New York Times that “Mr. Yow’s body language was furtive and prerock, suggesting a knowledge of Hawaiian dancing and the way to act around nervous horses.”
This kind of writing suggests Ratliff is taking dares, but I’ll be damned if he’s not conjuring up something grave and luscious here. A few more entries like that and we’re going to have enough entries for at least one circle in a mandala of rock animals.
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