Fear Not This Brief Eternity: Mizmor’s Prosaic
A blank prosaic wall of sound.
In J.M. Coetzee’s Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, the fictionalized account of Coetzee’s time as a university student in Cape Town and subsequent move to London in the ’60s, the aspiring poet begins to falter in his artistic hopes and gloomily feels the creep of prose writing as an alternative avenue for those hopes and aspirations. It is not a coincidence that this creep, mirroring as it does the creep of the workaday life as a programmer at IBM, leads to, by this point in the memoir, the baldest description of the protagonist’s dejection. “Misery is his element. He is at home in misery like a fish in water. If misery were to be abolished, he would not know what to do with himself.” Happiness, he contends, “teaches one nothing,” while misery “steels one for the future.” It is “a school for the soul.” And yet, the young man does not feel purified in the waters of misery. These are dark, muddy, brackish, waters—depthless, dirty pools the miserable programmer has barely begun to sink into in his mundane London existence. What if misery is quotidian? What if suffering is not acute? What if to be wretched is not a prerequisite to the life of a celebrated and famous artist? What if it is, very simply and very sadly, utterly prosaic?
These questions—these fears—not only attend but animate Mizmor‘s Prosaic, the latest offering from the Portland, OR, black/doom metal one-man project. In his own words, ALN wanted to make a more “human” record, a record “less conceptual” and “less grandiose.” This is a record about work, about consciousness, about acceptance and contentment. While it is still very much a “manifestation” of ALN’s “long-felt depression” and a potentially endless grief, it is not a record about God or atheism or any of the headier subjects of albums past. It is an album exploring freedom, about shedding oneself of pretension in an attempt to find a kind of joy in sharing something with the world. In a very real sense, Prosaic is a record borne out of an artist setting aside the inkwell of poetry for the wellspring of prose.
To call Prosaic a triumph would, on one hand, be a disservice to its spirit. On the other hand, it is nothing less than a significant success. If we take ALN at his word about the goals of making a record like Prosaic, a record shorn of pretense, then a simple congratulations is in order. From the opening moments of “Only an Expanse,” you can feel all of it to be true. A simple black metal drum beat gallops along underneath a doomy black metal riff while ALN bellows his high-register black metal wail. The riff changes for a moment—a more elegant, melodic passage—before the opening riff returns, very little having changed. This is black metal. This is Mizmor. If it feels unimaginative, that is the point. Of course, it isn’t unimaginative or dull or anything of the sort, but it takes these black metal tropes, as well as the sludgy doom tropes that drop unceremoniously onto the listener around the 4:30 mark, and lets them be the rudimentary sandbox in which the artist, with a child’s sense of freedom, can play. This world, this life, it is “only an expanse,” and we should “fear not this brief eternity.” Instead, “disenchant” yourself and “draw another breath.” Let the routine and the familiar and the everyday world be a solace in its sheer existence. To an extent, we know what all of this is. Let that be enough. Breathe in the space provided. Fill the space with your breath.
This is the record. Time spent with Thou on last year’s Myopia has certainly bolstered ALN’s sense of the depths of doomy despair, and he switches back and forth between that slightly sludge-twinged doom and a simple black metal throughout the album’s 4 tracks. They are long songs that lack dynamism in a way that would spell doom for other artists, but, again, this is the point. We are not here to do anything more profound than to feel whatever it is we might be feeling. We are not living a life more interesting than it already is by the jarring notion that life is interesting. We are not interested in tricks or bells and whistles or ornamentation; we are just interested, and we are open to what being interested in life—in everything life is and is not—might mean. “I feel it in my stomach / It spreads throughout my chest / What is it though but energy /And why should it be bad?” Yes, we are anxious. Yes, we are full of fears and doubts and grief and a relentless superego. It sits on our chest, it grips our hearts, it turns our stomachs. But if we stand back, if we rename it “energy,” if we denude it of any narrative, does it then lose its valuational power? And if it cannot be judged good or bad, what happens then? What can we accept? And in that acceptance, what kind of pleasure might be found?
I was fortunate enough to see Mizmor live last Wednesday at a venue on Atlanta’s West End, playing with Immortal Bird, Dreadnought, and Unrequited. Throughout Mizmor’s set, which included classics “Woe Regains My Substance” and “Desert of Absurdity” alongside “No Place to Arrive” and “Only an Expanse,” I spent a lot of time watching ALN, his mannerism and his demeanor. Before the band played, he was happily ensconced with band mates and touring friends outside on the patio or standing behind the merch table, far more carefree than one might expect from someone suffering under a lifetime of endless grief and depression. As the band played, bathed in purple light and billowing smoke, you could very much see and feel the “sense of fun” that both guided and emerged from ALN’s experience writing and recording Prosaic. Maybe even more than a sense of fun, there was a palpable joy in it all—a sincere sense of gratitude that we can only find when someone shares themselves with an audience and the audience receives them with grace and openness. I wanted to ask him, “Why black metal? Why this genre with such a fraught past and such a haunted present?” Perhaps it would have been a silly question. Perhaps the answer can be found by listening to Prosaic and seeing Mizmor on their current tour. Why black metal? Because at its roots, in its honest simplicity, it can set the stage for a profound exploration of the quotidian questions we spend our lives answering and answering all over again in a brief but eternal cycle.
Coetzee does not yet know, in the ’60s and working at IBM in London, that his dreams of becoming the next T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound will be dashed on the rocks of prosaic reality. That his dreams of poetic genius will, by 2003, be turned into a Nobel Prize for Literature based on his mastery of the prose form—both as a novelist and an essayist. There is nothing prosaic about the art of Coetzee except the very mundanity of the endless depths of suffering and misery that his books contain. Any sense of meaning a character might find is generally free of any sense of material benefit or reward. But if a character does find meaning—such as Michael K and Prof. Lurie do in their respective novels—it is an unrefined, unglamorous, and often horrifying meaningfulness that, nevertheless, provides them succor. Prosaic is ALN’s attempt at just such an arc, at just such a journey towards meaningfulness whatever that might entail or wherever it might lead. It is not a poetic journey; it is the most prosaic journey we all take. Yes, “it’s painful to be present” because “life is an aching thing,” but being present and living are the only things we can do. So do them.