Xibalba’s Años en infierno and the Hell of Empire
On Años en infierno, Xibalba asks the question, “How could empire be any worse?”
“While it may not follow from our present crisis,” writes Samuel Miller McDonald, “it is certain that eventually this empire will fall. Every single empire that has existed has crumbled and this one must, too, if only by destroying itself.” This empire, the fossil fuel empire, is the most expansive empire in history. More than just a land empire a la the Mongolian Empire, which stretched over 16 percent of the Earth and expired after 160 years, the fossil fuel empire is more totalizing in scope: “In the sense that it is contained in the carbon dioxide particles in the atmosphere, or the microplastics in the ocean, it already has covered every inch of the globe.” For McDonald, the material contamination of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans by the fossil fuel empire’s microscopic marauders is part of this empire’s efficient homogenization of biodiversity, economy, and human life. Maniacally monocultural, the fossil fuel empire is the “Empire of Same.”
Reading McDonald’s piece in the latest issue of Current Affairs, I kept thinking about Xibalba’s Años en infierno. Drawing together Bolt Thrower’s battle-tested (and battle-vested!) death metal, Crowbar’s None Heavier attitude, an L.A. hardcore aesthetic, Weekend Nachos’ preposterously down-tuned powerviolence, and Evoken’s dismal death/doom, Xibalba wring out of themselves and their influences an album that could serve as a capstone on their impressive career. It’s tempting to call Xibalba’s approach to Años en infierno tried-and-true, as their sound at this point is unmistakable, but that would undermine, or even flatten out, what Xibalba hope to accomplish with this record. On Años en infierno, Xibalba bring their unique form of DMxHC to bear on present and past crises in an opus on empire.
Setting aside the 2009 self-titled debut and their splits with contemporary bruisers Incendiary (2012) and Suburban Scum (2014), Xibalba’s 4 albums featuring art from Dan Seagraves depict the story of empire. Hasta la muerte (2011), Tierra y libertad (2015), the Diablo, con amor… adios EP (2017), and this year’s Años en infierno all feature variations on the Maya step pyramids. Hasta la muerte and Diablo, con amor… adios, Xibalba’s two albums most firmly rooted in Terror’s West Coast fury and the East Coast mosh of Shattered Realm, feature a lone figure standing in the shadow of a great pyramid. On Hasta la muerte, the figure aggressively faces the pyramid, while on Diablo, con amor… adios, the figure seems to have turned its back, walking back towards the viewer. On each cover, something looms between figure and pyramid, between viewer and object, between the current Empire of Same and the past Maya civilization.
Tierra y libertad, in an homage to Bolt Thrower, replaces the solitary pyramid and lone figure with a forest of step pyramids and a cavalcade of futuristic battle tanks and soldiers. Laser blasts streak across the facades of ancient architecture, a palimpsest of colonial conquest, present atrocities, and dystopic sci-fi. This is, as the album title tells us, the eternal battle for land and freedom. No longer looming invisibly, the Spanish Empire and its centuries-long quest to extinguish the Maya people irrupts into view. Crucially, it is also a moment of resistance. The Spanish Empire will inevitably fall, beginning to contract in the 18th century, but not before it decimates innumerable indigenous civilizations. Ancestors of those civilizations, however, still survive, persisting through and against erasure.
On the cover of Ańos en infierno, step pyramids are utterly consumed by fire, while the central pyramid appears volcanic in its spewing rage. Near the bottom right corner, a stone carving of a cloaked figure, possibly a howler monkey—an animal that plays a significant role in Quiché mythology—reminds us of the absence of humans. The battle is over and lost, the city of Nojpetén has fallen, and the mythological underworld that is Xi’balb’a has been reduced to Hell. But what does it mean to reduce the underworld to Hell?
Such a reduction is the clash of invasion. The Spanish Empire’s conquest of the Quiché Maya was pursued through spiritual and linguistic domination, where the language and religion of the Quiché people were all but eliminated and replaced. As McDonald reminds us, “Language loss is very real” in any Empire’s quest for homogenization. 600 languages “have disappeared in the last century, while up to 90 percent are unlikely to survive this century at current rates of decline.” Part of the Quiché story, part of the story of Xibalba the band and Xi’balb’a the underworld, is the story of invasion and loss. Allen J. Christenson, in the introduction to his 2003 translation of the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya people, tells us that the Maya people were perhaps the most literate peoples of the Americas with an intricate hieroglyphic form of writing dating back at least 1500 years prior to the Spanish Empire’s arrival. But, as Christenson laments, “The Spanish conquest in the early 16th century was a devastating blow to Maya literacy in Mexico and Guatemala. Christian missionaries burned great numbers of hieroglyphic texts in an attempt to eradicate indigenous religious practices. Native scribes were singled out for persecution to such an extent that within one hundred years, the art of hieroglyphic writing had virtually disappeared from among the Maya people.” Perhaps this is why the howler monkey, often honoured as a patron of writing, sits motionless on the cover of Años en infierno.
Though this story of empire is one of invasion and loss, it is also one of survival and transformation. We must keep this in mind when listening to Xibalba, named as they are after the Quiché word “Xi’balb’a” (meaning “Place of Fear”) that is the mythic underworld described in the Popul Vuh. The Popul Vuh itself has survived and found its way to modern readers through numerous translations deriving from a written copy of the text made by the Spanish priest Francisco Ximénez in the first decades of the 18th century. The manuscript from which Ximénez made his copy was hidden for centuries by Quiché elders and has not been seen since Ximénez returned it to them. We can only hope that this manuscript still survives, safely hidden away and transmitted between generations of trusted shepherds of this history. Few texts containing Maya hieroglyphics still exist today, and it is unknown whether the manuscript Ximénez translated was written in hieroglyphs or not. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that the Quiché elders had already translated the document. Ximénez’s translation, too, was written in a modified Latin script and not Quiché hieroglyphs. Scholar-translators such as Christenson have worked to phoneticize and bring the Quiché oral language back to Latin-Spanish-English translations of the Popul Vuh. As such, the Popol Vuh should be understood as a living document of languages, temporalities, histories, cultures, and people crossing back and forth within the contact zone that demonstrates the inextricably political and personal stories of empire.
“La injusticia” begins the album at the painful crossroads of the political and personal. After the briefest hint of atmosphere, it’s all-out assault that barely relents until the album’s closing tracks. Thunderous riffs and pounding breakdowns punctuate Nate Rebolledo’s powerful delivery as the band catalogs and mourns socio-economic privation and its effects on indigenous and immigrant communities. “La injusticia” is a confrontation with the realities that make gang life possible and necessary for so many. They are “searching for answers / seeking for revenge,” two imbricated acts that often see the latter substituted for the former in a world of violence. Though the song details the violence of the relentless death squads, it does not offer glorification, demonization, nor an apologia. Rather, “La injusticia” is an ugly, human reckoning with the cost and injustice of empire.
It is no surprise, then, that these forms of injustice lead directly to Death Row. On “Corredor de la muerte” Xibalba mourn this path, wrenching out an agonizing two minutes of soaring death/doom that would feel out of place if this record was not so committed to dwelling in grief and misery. We can also think of “Corredor de la muerte” as not only the path of the dead but a path to the dead. It reminds us of the journey of One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu into Xi’balb’a at the beckoning of One Death and Seven Death. As told in the Popol Vuh, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu lose their lives playing a ballgame with the lords of the underworld, a tragic beginning that leads to something more. With Xibalba, we are always within the Place of Fear, always haunted by the lords of death and disease that dwell there. But, as we will come to see, death and fear must bring about more than the end.
“Santa muerte” stays with death while evoking the sacral rites of the congregation. We are still searching here, but our searching has taken on a religious tone. “Santa muerte” locates personal pain within a community that is also suffering, and it understands love as inextricable from violence. Gnawing Morbid Angel riffs give way to the blunt brutality of Obituary as Rebolledo seeks the strength to continue his journey down into the depths of Hell and Empire. One of Años en infierno’s strongest tracks, this is classic Xibalba. Throughout their career, Xibalba has excelled when slamming together death metal tropes and hardcore sentiment. “Santa muerte” exemplifies such an approach, plumbing the depths of emotionality and letting the echoing reverberations rise into a cacophony of OSDM and ’90s beatdown.
After the instrumental “Saka,” which features a Riff ov the Year candidate at the 1:57 mark, we finally arrive at Infierno. Perhaps, however we have not only just arrived, as we have been stuck in Infierno for an incalculable number of years. It is this sort of disconnect or disorientation that is at the heart of the introspective “Años en infierno.” The solitude, loneliness, and anguish of “La injusticia” that are all borne from structural injustices are no longer external points of reference but rather internal scars. No longer searching for answers or seeking revenge, Rebolledo is now asking for forgiveness and peace. What’s done is done. Benediction and absolution are all that remain.
From Hell we pass through the obscurity of darkness and absurdly heavy breakdowns (“En la oscuridad”) to stand on the gaping precipice of the abyss. Xibalba ends Años en infierno over the course of 13 minutes of death/doom that is both craven and cavernous. When “El abismo, pt. 1” gives way to clean guitars and singing, long-time Xibalba fans will be reminded of Tierra y libertad’s closer “El vacio.” It should come as no surprise that a band named after the underworld finds itself drawn to the vacuum, the void, the abyss. Moments of heaviness roar out from the lengthier clean passages of “El abismo, pt. 1,” while “Pt. 2” only briefly interrupts its cataclysmic end-time riffage with similar cleans. The second minute of “Pt. 2” might be 60 of the album’s best seconds, switching from Weekend Nachos-style annihilation to something akin to Civernous’s caveman crunch. After the breakdowns are washed away, the song and album lurch to the end in waves of resplendent funereal doom. Fittingly, Rebolledo’s vocals have entirely disappeared, leaving nothing but a sounding of the depths of the abyss. If benediction and absolution were possible in Hell, nothing remains here but “dark winds blow[ing] cold.”
And yet, there is something still standing. A “forest of blight” and “trees with hollow roots” are here, the dark winds blowing coldly through their crooked and empty branches. Cold. Trees. These are weighty signifiers for both Xibalba and Xi’balb’a, and they guide us up from and out of the abyss. Though it is hard to find and celebrate life in el abismo, the band and Quiché mythology invite us to do just that.
In Xi’balb’a, there are 8 houses in which One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu are tested by the lords of the underworld. One of these houses, the House of Cold (or the Shivering House), is “thick with frost” and has “an icy wind [that] whistles through its interior.” You can hear the splintering echoes of the House of Cold’s frostbitten squalls in “El abismo, Pt. 1” and in Xibalba’s classic “Cold.” Quiché mythology comes to life in Xibalba’s music, resurrected to allegorize the despairing loneliness of our fractured and atomized modern world.
As mentioned earlier, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu are defeated by the denizens of Xi’balb’a. After their deaths, One Hunahpu’s head is placed in the heart of a calabash tree that soon bears fruit though it never bore fruit before. One Hunahpu’s head becomes identical to the fruit of the tree, and the Xibalbans refuse to eat from it. It is from this tree, however, that One Hunahpu’s twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque are born, and these Hero Twins will subsequently return to Xi’balb’a to revenge the deaths of their father One Hunahpu his brother Seven Hunahpu.
As the literal and figural seeds of One Hunahpu and the calabash tree, Hunahpu and Xbalanque embody rebirth. “Seeds,” writes Christenson, “are referred to as small bones or skulls in many highland Maya languages. The reverse is also true, human bones are seen as seeds, the source of new life as expressed in succeeding generations.” Death, then, is understood as a prerequisite for life. “It was thus necessary,” Christenson continues, “for One Hunahpu to descend into the underworld to die before a new generation could appear and be capable of overcoming death.”
Though engulfed in flames, the cover of Años en infierno is overgrown with barren trees. For now, they are leafless and fruitless calabash trees, but one day they will bloom and usher in future generations. The long-eclipsed Spanish Empire nearly eradicated the Maya people of modern-day Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, but in this inferno the seeds of new life are always found, ready to sprout and grow anew. “Even in a deadened world,” writes McDonald at the end of his essay, “with the collapse of this order there will follow more diverse kinds of human life and government.” The trauma at the heart of Años en infierno is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth so critical to Mesoamerican art and literature. Though there seems to be so little hope in the album’s smoldering anger, Xibalbas know that years spent in Hell must lead to a reconceptualization of the forms and materials of life. Weaving together the richness of Quiché mythology, the often painful experiences of Latinx people conscripted into borderlands, and a fiery critique of empire’s violent domination of indigenous cultures and populations, Xibalba have performed an act of “k’astajisaj,” a Quiché word meaning “to cause to have life” or “to resurrect.” Años en infierno is a journey through the pain of colonization towards all that comes after the empire falls.