Monday, October 31, 2011
How to listen to Mortician
Have you ever looked at a Mortician tab? This is a completely serious question: have you ever actually looked up guitar tabs for a Mortician song. I have no doubt that the very idea of it is making some of you snicker- "What's the point, it's Mortician" (of course that question should have died halfway through its formation due to the sudden epiphany that occurred, but we'll get to that later) but it's actually a fascinating and revealing look at one of the most misunderstood, underrated, and perpetually brilliant bands in the extreme metal scene. In fact, it's worthwhile to pick up some tabs right now- grab anything off "Hacked Up For Barbecue." It's okay, I'll wait.
What does it show? Nothing: the riffs are pointless. The sluggish, grooving chug riffs are the only ones that are actually "composed" (to whatever degree); the tremolo riffs, as you can see for yourself, are almost entirely random. Not only are they essentially indecipherable in the production, but chromatic runs of 4-3-2-1 are the rule rather than the exception. I have no doubt that numerous riffs are repeated through the band's catalog- after all, none of them took any time to write or loosely string together into brief, noisy "songs," so who cares if a riff pops up an album later? You won't remember it.
Why exactly does Mortician get lambasted for being essentially riffless and drifting music, more focused on atmosphere and a pulsing rhythmic drone than discrete songwriting principles while bands like Branikald are roundly lauded for exactly the same features? Is it really just because Mortician is doing it with gore and '80s horror samples where Branikald is doing it with Aryan pride and frosty imagery? I'd like to think it's not so simple, but it probably is, and it speaks to a certain sort of obsessive traditionalism and narrow focus that I find irritating about the metal scene.
Metalheads love to go on and on about how metal is an incredibly artistic, boundary-pushing style of music, devoid of many of the traditional artistic concerns of "high" art. Unfortunately, this is patently untrue: much as how some of the bands most appreciated as "progressive" and "serious music" are those who are closest to rock in structure (Agalloch, Wood of Ypres, etc.), bands like Mortician are cast aside along with Devourment and Sodom as guilty pleasure material at best; something to headbang to and enjoy in the most shallow sense, but of course not designed to be listed alongside "serious" work like, I don't know, Suffocation.
Of course, this is patently ridiculous, as Mortician is without a doubt one of the most artistic projects in the entirety of metal. How many other bands out there manage to execute such a precise, unwavering aesthetic vision time and time again, flawlessly executing a particular atmosphere and style again and again without ever straying from what made it great in the first place? The comparison to Branikald above isn't merely stylistic- it's also a guideline as to how one should listen to Mortician.
No one puts on a Forest album and gripes about repetition, low production values, or the droning, ambient quality of the music, and the same judgments should apply to Mortician. If Mortician were, in an alternate reality, a black metal band, they would be massively appreciated for doing what they do. In perhaps an even more telling display of metal's uncomfortably mainstream artistic sensibilities, I would wager that if Mortician was staffed by Aesop Dekker and Dominick Fernow rather than a couple thuggish New Yawkers, the project would be appreciated as a brilliant, precise piece of artistic commentary on death metal in general.
From here on, we delve into layers of abstraction so bizarre they might be entirely drug or pretense-fueled. You've been warned.
I don't see Mortician as a band, really. Yes, it's a musical collective that releases records, plays shows, and features members, but they've never had the "band presence" that their contemporaries possess. Rather, I see Mortician as a sort of commentary on barbarity in extreme music itself. Isolating individual Mortician tracks as exemplary or particularly brilliant in their own right is a somewhat fruitless task; the purpose of a Mortician song is not to be a great song, but to be a Mortician song. Every Mortician track is designed to be consumed as a part of a tapestry of other, similar songs; you swallow an entire album down in one gulp like a pill and appreciate the whole experience rather than dwelling on its individual elements. It's an atmospheric piece; you don't simply put on one Branikald track, do you?
To narrow and specify: the samples, one of the most widely hated and derided aspects of Mortician's music. Their litany of old, degraded horror samples is as intrinsic a part of their music as the music itself, the way I see it. Of course, the issue isn't that the samples are designed to set up a specific idea of the song that will ensue, or craft an individuated atmosphere; they are there to be horror samples. If one starts seeing Mortician as a commentary piece rather than an artistic endeavor, you'll begin to understand that the samples stand alone. Mortician is a project with a purpose: to create an ugly, dreary, murderous sort of mood, its violence and depravity exacerbated by how mundane it begins to feel alongside its constant repetition and inhuman qualities.
The inhumanity of Mortician's music is a crucially overlooked piece of the whole package. The drum machine is nearly as (or even more) important than the rest of the music: the total lack of fills, inhumanly fast tempos during the blast sections, and absence of frills or variation during the slow parts all come together to form a lurching, inhuman rhythmic presence devoid of emotion or mercy. The ultra-distorted, basically indecipherable guitars and bass and the monotonous, ursine grunting go along with this. If other death metal is designed to sound angry or hateful, Mortician is the sound of the absence of emotion- it's a killer that murders not for pleasure or ideological bent, but simply because it chooses to.
When's the last time you actually listened to a Mortician album, anyway? Try it out sometime. Listen to the whole thing. Turn it up very loud while you're doing something else. Let the tracks blur together. Let the slow nodding start during "Zombie Apocalypse." Let the horror samples drip into the songs and vice versa. Let the total absence of anger, love, hate, joy, or sorrow drive you to kill and kill and kill and kill and kill and kill and kill and