The Death and Rebirth of Deep Space Psudoku
Psudoku’s third album, Deep Space Psudokument, is a dizzying swirl of chaos, hurtling the listener into a timeless, rapturous abyss. A compelling and original album composed and recorded by Norwegian grindcore musician Steinar Kittilsen from the more straight ahead and politically charged grindcore project Parlamentarisk Sodomi, Deep Space Psudokument challenged my perceptions of art and forced me to re-evaluate how I engage with program music, and I hope it will for you as well. This article will serve two purposes: an analysis/review of the performative and structural elements of the album and; an inner dialogue with how I came to terms with the program or narrative of the project. I myself am an extreme metal player (guitar and vocals), modern classical composer (mostly chamber music), and academic just graduating from my PhD in musical composition this year. You can check out my music and papers on my new website. My hope is that, in providing not only a technical analysis but also a deeper look into how extreme metal is a special and important genre of music in terms of how it engages with its audience on a musical, social, and spiritual level, you’ll develop a greater interest in the inner workings of the medium you love and discover some killer jams in the process.
I was instantly enthralled with the sound of Deep Space’s relentless speed, complexity, and heaviness. Kittilsen’s precision playing gives the album clarity and balance, complimenting a pervasive suffocating compression throughout which both distorts and punctuates the driving rhythms. The instrumentation consists of two distorted guitars, distorted bass, drum-kit, and intermittent appearances of both vocalist and keyboard parts. The vocals, for the most part, are treated as an instrument with lyrics downplayed in favour of incoherent screams and screeches. The keyboards are kitchy – reminiscent of a mix of early videogame music and low-budget slasher films of the 80’s. Psudoku’s style/aesthetic has been described variously as being anything from grindcore and jazz to “surf rock, doom and electronic classical.” Although I can hear hints of surf rock, I personally do not hear the “doom and electronic classical”, nor do I hear any jazz – other than there being a high level of complexity. Instead, the album lies comfortably in the vein of tech-grind bands such as Psyopus and Cephalic Carnage. The compositional structure of the album is defined by organic motivic development, being the continual transformation of a 2-3 note melody throughout a song, played in unison by the instruments – either as a group tremolo or choked chords punctuated with choked cymbals. The album structure is tripartite with intense grindcore pervading the 1st half of the album, followed by two strange and quirky keyboard driven tracks, and ends with a combination of the two.
The opening track “KCulraVIII_8000” gives us a glimpse into the rest of the album: punctuated unison hits utilizing irregular rhythmic groupings, oscillating within a group tremolo – evoking, thanks to its use of major intervals, a sense of smiling lunacy rapidly spinning out of control. Track 2 and 3 continue in a similar manner, with almost no room between songs to breathe. The fourth track “spaceBURIEALiz_9” gives the listener their first break from the suffocating tech-grind texture by introducing the keyboards with a bizarre video game music sound. Here use of repetition, major melodic intervals, and band unison give the song a sense of happy delirium. “KOSMISQUE_trapp,” the finale, returns to the hectic angular rhythms and melodies of the first several tracks, bookending the album’s structure nicely.
Upon my initial listening, I was impressed by the density, intensity and complexity of Kittilsen’s music. However, one thing I was not sold on with my first several listens was the program. Program music, the setting of an instrumental musical work – including elements such as structure, atmosphere, rhythms, or melody – to a program or story, is not a new concept. There are plenty of diverse examples of program music throughout the ages: Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Arnold Schoenberg’s Verlakte Nacht, or Debussy’s Afternoon Faun. In the case of Deep Space Psudokument, the program is a story of being violently thrown into the future through “a rift in the space-time continuum.” This is no doubt a great concept, but for some reason, even after several listens and reading the program notes, I had difficulty hearing anything ‘spacey.’ I tried to imagine a scenario in space in which this would feel like an appropriate soundtrack, which never materialized. Instead my mind was filled with images of delirium and fanatical joy. When I envision the sound of outer-space and other-worldly dimensions, it would undoubtedly take the form of a large empty abyss, stretching across infinity. One example of such a soundscape is Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres for orchestra (notably appropriated by Stanley Kubrick for his seminal film 2001: A Space Odyssey) or his equally atmospheric Lux Aeterna for choir. The sound universe of these works is dense and complex, stretching across a spectrum so large it carries the sound of infinity. Deep Space Psudokument is its opposite: tightly constricted and compressed, dense, repetitive, and humorous.
Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres
Gyorgy Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna
However, this gulf between my own and Kittlsen’s vision of outer-space is not something I believe to be a problem. As an artist, I myself have been criticized of “not fulfilling the extra musical association or program” written for a piece of music. There is a trend in musical discourse and criticism beginning at the end of the 19th century in which many artists and theorists have looked to account for this difference in interpretation. This was largely accomplished by creating distance in art. This distance is a theoretical tool that removes sentimentality or the melodrama in an art work and in turn how we view the artist in relation to ourselves.
The previous Romantic era of art was largely dominated by larger than life personalities such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Nicolo Paganini and Franz Liszt – all of them being ‘rock stars’ of their generation. Publishers and concert promoters would hype up their names by spreading rumours, cancelling shows, and generally created a kind of mystique around them. The modern era, in an attempt to separate themselves from this romanticism and the aftershock of WWI, ceased to see artists as geniuses, but instead as normal people who, by creating art, were not really doing anything special. Art, no longer being created by geniuses, opened up the audience interpretation as being as important to the work of art as the artist. Through a complete removal of sentimentality and melodrama in the station of both art and the artist, a ‘distance’ is created wherein the audience’s, and of course the theorist’s, interpretation is just as important, or maybe even more so. This is known in academia as “the death of the author” (1967) – taken from a chapter with the same name in the groundbreaking book Sound Image Text by artist and theorist Roland Barthes.
In my artistic education, anytime someone tried to point to something about a composer’s life, personality, or personal struggles – which would help explain something about a piece of music or a compositional tool used – the teacher or academic would throw this idea, the “death of the author”, at us. “Death,” which was only ever alluded to and never fully explained by the professors in question, refers to the removal of the author’s or artist’s interpretation of the work. The author in this context is often compared to a parent, who is “thought to nourish the [work], that is to say he exists before it, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his child” (Barthes 167, 145). This line of thinking requires the author to let go of their authority over the work and send it out into the world, like the proverbial bird leaving the nest.
I find this line of theorization in art problematic for several reasons. First of all, as an artist, I happen to feel that my interpretation of my own composition – this creation that I envisioned, molded, and structured from hours of sketching, improvising, and editing – should carry some weight. I become quite attached to my own work, and I’m fairly certain that other artists who sweat and slave to create and realize their vision feel similar. Writing, recording, and mixing a piece of work as complex and challenging as Psuduko’s Deep Space Psudokument is arduous and nothing to be sneered at. It does take a great deal of intellect (genius) to accomplish this feat. Yes, I know, all art is appropriated, but it is how we appropriate that gives it value. There is a large gulf between great, mediocre, and bad art. You can’t just practice speed and scales for 15 years and expect to become one of the greats (unless you’re Yngwie Malmsteen). An artist must work on their intuition, their imagination, their ability to record their ideas accurately enough to reproduce. Artists are inspired by their life experiences, other artists’ music, other people’s ideas, etc., in a manner more complex than could ever be analyzed. In the case of music, these life experiences and inspirations are transformed into musical symbols based on what we consider to be appropriate to the style we have chosen to write in. Tech-grind has a number of them: osciallating time-signatures; angular melodic and rhythmic phrases; blast-beats and tremolo guitars; 5th chords in parallel motion; high-pitch screaming vocals; and structures based on the verse-chorus form or through composed motivic development (and sometimes a combination of the two). It is how the artist takes these musical symbols and expresses their individuality through them – how they transgress the normative codes of the genre that shows character.
But music and art are a shared experience between artist and observer. According to Barthes, when the art work is sent out into the world it allows for more than one “‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God)” (Barthes 1967, 146). In theatrical theory, the re-interpretation of a work is thought to create an intertextuality between it and the original or a “matrix of overlapping frames” (Balodis 2012, 33). I believe the same overlap happens between artist and observer, which of course turns the audience member into an actively creative listener – becoming an author of their own interpretation. But because the original program is permanently set by the artist, and travels with it through various means (eg. biographies, program notes within the CD booklet, etc.), the original idea of the artist must be integral to the layer of meanings. In fact, the observer can probably intuit much of the author’s creative state while also experiencing the art work itself. I believe this is the ‘connection’ that the artist and observer have – a shared moment where a similar experience or emotional state has made an impact on both individuals.
My inability to reconcile Kittlsen’s and my own mental image of the album bothered me so much that one evening after band rehearsal I discussed the program in Deep Space with my band members. The bass player of my band, Dustin Smith, suggested perhaps I was thinking of the wrong aspects of space – what about terrifying images of monsters, or spiraling endlessly into nothingness? Surely these images would involve states of delirium or frantic anxiety. Suddenly my mind turned to Lovecraft’s short story The Silver Key in which Randolf Carter, a man searching for his golden childhood dreamscape, discovers the secret to all existence, which ends up driving him mad. This new “way-in” given to me by Smith created an overlap of meanings between the original program of Kittlsen, Smith’s suggestion, and my love of Lovecraftian lore.
So what does this mean for the review? The music is still incredible and fun. But now the newly reconciled imagery has allowed for a much less frustrating experience, and the author’s original meaning is respected – as was my own authority over my imagination. I think it is important for listeners of complex music to enjoy these experiences no matter how frustrating. Music this complicated should not just be taken at face value, or be left droning in the background. It is meant to be explored with the furthest reaches of the imagination – how does my past experience colour my listening? How does the original program? How do I like to enjoy music like this? Is it technical? programmatic? These questions I believe create a more engaged listening experience. It helps us to connect to the artist, and to the broader musical community that surrounds us. I am not calling for a ‘death’ of modernism – I find its coolness and stillness to be beautiful – but I believe a little melodrama is good for art, which is what I love about metal. No matter how ‘modern’ a death metal or grindcore album is, or which tools are used to create distance, the brutality of the sound brought about by the physicality of the players will always be evocative and emotive. Even when you cut through the humour (an agent of distance) of Deep Space Psudokument, there is an underlying emotional veracity found in the pure aggression and angularity that is cathartic and inspiring. Even after several listens the album remains engaging through its well-planned structure, complexity and quirkiness. If you’re a fan of technically proficient music and have a good sense of humour, I would suggest this album to be next on your purchase list.
 For the premiere of my chamber work “Sonata for Satan,” a critic accused myself, and other composers on the same concert of writing programs for our works that were not fulfilled. Here is the piece that was critiqued.