Taking a Break from All Your Metal with Charlie Looker & Book of Sand
Dear 2018: Thank you for slacking on the quality metal.
Wait, wait, let me explain. The general consensus around here amongst writers and readers seems to be that, sluggish start aside, 2018 has really heated up in the metal department. Only a fool would piss in the face of such a venerable consensus. I won’t piss in its face; I’ll just note that not much in the way of metal has jazzed me this year. Why? I don’t know; I can’t afford psychoanalysis. Regardless, this is not a bad thing, as my ears have been left open to discover a breadth of different sounds from past and present alike. With the help of Dais Records, I’ve been digging up some of Coil‘s more obscure ambient releases. I’ve been exploring the softer, folksy side of bands like Dornenreich and 1476. Hell, I’ve spent more time listening to the Blade Runner 2049 OST than 2018’s apparent darling, the new Tomb Mold.
So, since there’s fuck-all to write about in metal right now, I bring you two new glorious non-metal albums to sink your teeth into (or to ply with your toothless, gingivitic gums): Charlie Looker‘s Simple Answers and Book of Sand‘s Postmodern Witchcraft.
Part One: Pop Music Doesn’t Have to Suck — It Chooses To
Although Charlie Looker has never quite fully submersed himself in metal, he should be no stranger to faithful Toilet readers (1, 2, 3). At the helm of Psalm Zero, he has harnessed heaviness while lubricating genre erosion. During an interview for This Blog’s Very Own Podcast, which came hot on the heels of Psalm Zero’s sophomore opus Stranger to Violence, Looker teased a solo venture involving a small orchestra. For obsessive fanboys like myself, the fruit of that labor, the self-released Simple Answers, was a long time coming. The wait was well-nigh excruciating. Luckily, I had a wealth of unexplored Charlie Looker projects to fall back on in the meantime. I’ve spent a not insubstantial chunk of this year absorbing the transgressive art rock of the now-defunct Extra Life and the confrontationally explicit neo-renaissance ditties of Seaven Teares. I’m glad I became familiar with these obscure projects before coming face to face with Simple Answers, because a lot of what Looker attempts with this album can be explained by all that he has already accomplished. That said, Simple Answers absolutely explodes the envelope of all that has come before.
The album opens with “What Dawn is This?”, an overture that makes full use of a fifteen-piece orchestra and a small chorus of sopranos. The sopranos repeat the question “What dawn is this?” over and over against a backdrop of neoclassical string and brass textures ranging from uneasy drones to bursts of brightness and triumph. The effect sums up to this: Where the fuck are we (the People) and how the fuck did we (the People) get here? It’s a powerful yet curious salvo that, for all its vast reach, betrays nothing of what the rest of the album holds in store. Basically, if you’re not a huge fan of purely choral and orchestral music, fear not…
…Because Simple Answers is by and large a pop record, and following track “Ritual Fire” is nothing if not The Queen Pop Anthem of Summer 2018. No, it is not two minutes long. No, it is not a compact automation of an A-B-A-B scheme. No, the vocals are not needlessly pitch-corrected. And no — the lyrics are not about a party or a breakup or self-esteem. This is, after all, art. It is art and it is pop. It is art-pop. The orchestra returns, a breathtaking expanse of pitches and timbres twittering and sighing as they ride the simple drum & bass program. At the forefront, Looker’s tenor vocals keep the chaos just barely reined in, seeming to ask very un-simple questions about power, history, and responsibility. If you can listen to the verse melody without getting it stuck in your head then congratulations: you probably have brain damage.
What lies ahead is a suite of equally intricate pop tunes that are by turns lush, touching, and outright disturbing. Surprises abound, like the daring vocal gymnastics that close out “Black Sun” or the pieces of “Puppet” where the strings and horns imitate the wub-wubs and stutter-steps of dubstep. Nothing is executed by rote on Simple Answers: every moment seems to hold some new voice, some new depth, some new sign of intelligent design, rendering the songs as cerebrally engrossing as they are singable. Instances of paranoid dissonance do not so much threaten the prevailing consonance as dance with it endlessly round and round; the keel is never even for long, yet the entire system itself remains stable. The highs are high and the lows are oh so low — and never so low as in moments of crushing lyrical candor. I can’t say I understand every lyrical tree Looker is barking up, nor do I feel intellectually or emotionally aligned with everything I think I understand, but at the end of the day it is the lyrics to Simple Answers that cut the deepest. Take for instance this bit from “Golden Flesh”:
DNA, Show and tell
Helix for helix, smell for smell
Wipe off the slime
My millions spent
Don’t let it stain your noble scent
Pretty tame by the measure of Looker’s past lyrics for Extra Life and Seaven Teares, yet pitting them against the chiming and playful jam of the orchestra in “Golden Flesh” invites a sort of vertiginous dialectic distortion. From the lurid and personal on up to the political and pre-apocalyptic — from sex to fascism — Looker cloaks his themes in deep metaphor without pulling any punches.
I doubt we’ll ever hear another pop record quite like this — that is, until Looker records another one. The ambition on display here is astonishing, and it pays off because Looker, as a composer, has the skill and discipline to keep his ambition from collapsing in upon itself. With narry a moment of pretense and only one misstep in the not entirely necessary reprise of “What Dawn Is This?”, Simple Answers is well nigh flawless. Art-pop itself has been languishing in gaudy pretense or pure lack of scope for some time now (the latterday insults of Radiohead and Bjork come most readily to mind). You’re on notice, punks: Charlie Looker has just reset the bar.
Part Two: Now, Let Us Boogie
Book of Sand, on the contrary, may not be familiar to many of you. Primarily the work of a lone, mysterious musician from Minnesota, the project is difficult to pin down. Black metal is the most convenient reference but, now that I’ve made it, even casual black metal fans are likely to cry foul. Book of Sand makes strange, artsy blackish metal for strange, artsy people — and always with a raw irreverence for orthodoxy. Imagine, if you will, what Toby Driver of Kayo Dot might have done with his career if he were a total DIY introvert who sprang from the soil of black metal instead of death/doom and modern composition. Can you imagine it? Yes? Eh, you’re still not all that close to what Book of Sand is peddling.
If black metal is not your thing then fear not — because Postmodern Witchcraft is not a black metal record. It might even be the perfect pill for those of you who dig black metal but are sort of burnt out on it. And if the sheer force, depth, and thematic heaviness of Charlie Looker’s Simple Answers was a bit much for you, then Postmodern Witchcraft might be just your speed, because the album is prevailingly soft, shallow, and unambitious. Or if it is ambitious, then its ambition is manifest solely in the stylistic jump from the lo-fi outsider black metal of previous album Occult Anarchist Propaganda to lo-fi surf goth of all friggin things.
Surf goth? Yup. This record is beach party music for pale, anemic kids who read Byron and Poe in their bedrooms until the sun goes down and then gather under the moon to stare at the ground and ignore one another. The album easily could have been recorded in its mastermind’s bedroom. Tinny drums cleave to the classic surf rock tropes while twangy, un-distorted guitars evoke Southwestern nostalgia and synths pay homage to the eerie minimalism of Ennio Morricone or B-movie sci-fi. As for the vocals…well, this guy (I don’t know his name) mostly eschews screaming for a sort of fragile, trilling, deranged impersonation of Chris Isaak: smooth yet unsettling. Here, again, I am reminded of Toby Driver, who has a penchant for vocalizations that are at once familiar and uncanny. (There’s that vertigo again.)
On the whole, Postmodern Witchcraft exhibits very little variation. Not a problem, given how immediately charming and convincing it is in its play of genres. It is so confident, so fun without devolving into parody or paltry irony, that I find myself rather pissed that I don’t live in a world where this kind of music stormed the airwaves in my childhood. The only two glaring departures to the surf goth formula come in the chorus of “Termites in the Trunk”, which harkens back to black metal with distorted tremolos and buried shrieks, and in “The Gates of Heaven”, which utterly abandons the beach for the hills of Appalachia. The latter is a striking, banjo-flecked apocalypse dirge, bitter and weary, thumbing its nose at the Creator and His woeful Creation in the great tradition of all backwoods malcontents.
At six tracks that clock in right on the twenty-minute mark, this fascinating mashup of disparate nostalgias is criminally brief. Every time it ends, I go right back to the beginning for more. Tired of metal? Need something to get your inner booty shaking without insulting your intelligence or depleting that pool of scorched chicken grease you call a soul? Postmodern Witchcraft is calling.