Review: Theologian – Pain of the Saints
“A breakdown in the unity of state and church has altered the context in which blasphemy might be understood. Rather than viewing blasphemous libel as intrinsically linked through the Ecclesiastical courts within the unity of State and Church, the emphasis has shifted to the individual in society whose freedom of artistic expression is constrained instead by the secular laws of defamation and obscenity.”
-Christopher Braddock, “Blasphemy and the art of the political and devotional”
from Negotiating the Sacred II: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in the Arts (2008)
Lee Bartow, formerly of Navicon Torture Technologies, forms the core of Theologian, along with his frequent collaborators Matt Slagle and Fade Kainer of Batillus and Statiqbloom. Pain of the Saints also features a slew of guests, from Eric Morgan of A Pale Horse Named Death to Jessica Way of Worm Ouroboros and Christiana Key of Delphic Oracle to Joan Hacker of Factoria and Heroine. Bartow himself calls Pain of the Saints his “Anti-Theist manifesto,” a fitting title for such an obstreperous onslaught.
Theologian craft monolithic but intensely detailed music from huge sheets of sound, sine waves themselves ballooning in size to flesh out the frequency range. But the sonic fortitude on display is far from un-nuanced; Bartow and company always take care to let ring a core emotional truth of sorts. Said truth is often a brittle, fragile beauty not simply conferred onto the listener but one that has to be earned through the trials of the music. Pain of the Saints in particular seems more devoid of “hooks” (whatever that means in Theologian’s universe) than any other entry in the group’s considerable discography, forcing the listener to work harder than ever before.
But to what end? In Bartow’s own words, “it was common to imprison, torture, execute anyone with ideas that ran contrary to what the Church dictated, to brand them as a heretic or a witch, or an apostate, and then end their lives using some of the most brutal methods humans have ever conceived. Then, the ultimate hypocrisy: to turn around and dub these victims of the Church as saints, centuries after having murdered them.” Pain of the Saints‘ biblical subject matter certainly occupies a territory more epic (or perhaps holy?) in nature than the group’s prior focus on sex and sadism, but what does it accomplish?
The controversy-generating power of art is by and large a thing of the past. It becomes increasingly more difficult for an artist to offend an audience’s sensibilities when only a click away is a myriad of execution videos ready to be broadcast by the worldwide media. Today’s information media’s 24-hour fixation on suffering and brutality makes for stiff competition for pseudo-transgressive artists like Swallowing Bile (a topic my colleague Edward briefly touched on here).
But this is far from a bad thing. Art is now free from the need to create controversy to draw attention. In Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”), German cultural critic Walter Benjamin argued that the ubiquity of art caused by technology liberated it from a ritual role and allowed it to take on a political one. Emancipated from the shackles of a need for controversy, art could be judged not on the potential headlines it could generate but on the political, aesthetic and, most importantly, artistic grounds on which it was created. Over time, those seeking attention will look ever more out of touch.
Benjamin’s thought process was clearly ahead of his time; first published in 1936, Das Kunstwerk… predated the internet’s incredible power for assigning controversy (real or not) to art. His words ring truer now than ever. In the mainstream, once-hotly-debated artists like Kanye West, Eminem or Lady Gaga (too dated a reference?) can no longer generate buzz around mildly offensive song titles, lyrical slurs or outrageous costumes, respectively. A harsher lens is focused on the music rather than the circumstances surrounding it.
But Bartow’s intent is obviously far more mature than simply to scandalize his audience. The album’s press release calls it a “sonic diatribe exposing hypocrisy within the church and a broader questioning of what sainthood means.” Pain of the Saints is clearly meant as a critique, or perhaps a deconstruction of what Bartow perceives as the Church’s sanctimonious nature, but without a lyrics sheet it’s impossible for the listener to know just how exactly this critique functions. As such this review will try to focus instead on the music presented.
So on that note: how does the music of Pain of the Saints fare?
In a word, it’s breathtaking. Much of the album’s two discs is devoted to Theologian’s utterly singular brand of dark, heavy death industrial, as shown on tracks like the above “Piss and Jism.” After expanding naturally outward from Navicon Torture Technologies’ sound, Theologian has grown very much into its own entity, comparable perhaps in concept to Gnawed or Human Larvae but unmatched in character.
The rawer, noisier tracks can be difficult to digest, especially in larger doses, but they are prevented from becoming monotonous by atmospheric standouts like “Gravity,” “Deprivation,” or “Blessed Prey.” Unlike some of their previous albums, the Theologian on Pain of the Saints is largely unconcerned with rhythm, but hardly in a cavalier manner. This is essential sound, not in the sense that it is a “must-hear” work per se, but because it is essential, as in “the essence of.” The conceit of Pain of the Saints is easier communicated in architectural terms: stylized and detailed though it may be, the album is primarily a pillar, a solid, material structure supporting great weight with subtle, unobtrusive flair.
My primary complaint about the album would be its lopsidedness. Many of the best songs on the album are relegated to the second disc, where impatient listeners may never find them. Of course, impatient listeners have no place here; simply put, Pain of the Saints is made for the deepest kind of listening. Still, with so many standouts on the second half of the album its a wonder some weren’t migrated to the first just for balance’s sake.
Clocking in at nearly three hours of music, Pain of the Saints is an absolute monster of a record. The length isn’t even an issue; anyone considering putting it on knows what they’re getting into and is ready. After a number of already-stellar releases, it’s possible Theologian have finally released their magnum opus.