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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dead Again: For Good This Time

At the age of eleven, I made a brilliant discovery. I was perusing CDs at an electronics shop in Vienna where my family lived at the time, and happened upon the Mortal Combat soundtrack. I knew nothing about any of the artists featured in the package, but was excited by their names: Bile, Napalm Death, Type O Negative. It was this last band, however, that has remained with me ever since.

Once I had moved through the first industrial licks of the album, my ears were accosted by a deeply sonorous voice, accompanied by a psychedelic cacophony that would warm the heart of any self-respecting Doors fan. I was hooked. The guitars were low, the bass was basically a baritone guitar, and Josh Silver's keyboards ran the gamut of 80s cheese to the somber groans of a Cathedral organ. The track was Blood and Fire, the band was Type O Negative.

Soon, I had October Rust, an album for which there really is no comparison. It's a moody, brooding masterpiece fit for the crazed mind of any subversive adolescent. Every missionary mother's worst nightmare, the album explored everything from love triangles and hedonistic druids, to werewolf's in search of menstrual blood. I had no possible means of defense against such an intense lambaste of melody and rebellion. But the album that would turn the "drab four" into reluctant stars was Bloody Kisses. From a casual listen you would never conclude that this was a group of blue-collar guys from Brooklyn. The album is filled with a powerful and even sophisticated ambiance that has been dubbed "Gothic" for lack of a better word. But Peter Steele's compositions (decompositions) are too lavish to be painted with that brush. This is not Cradle of Filth, after all. I would venture to say that Peter Steele was a musical genius. The rich and layered texture is only the beginning for the listener. Steele's wicked humor frequently makes its way into the song, assuring you that these pale morticians don't take themselves too seriously.

Beginning his career as a sanitation worker for the New York City parks department, Peter Steele, at six-foot-seven, was an imposing figure, sulking about Brooklyn's worst districts in search of waste. Initially, he hopped from band to band. Fallout was an early incarnation of Type O and even yielded a demo. Steele also fronted the notorious hardcore band Carnivore, in which he showcased his highly progressive political views; he also offered some helpful tips on dealing with domestic disputes (I say this with tongue planted firmly in cheek).

The first Type O Negative album was entitled Slow,Deep and Hard. I can't think of a better title nor can I imagine a more gorgeous piece of sonic misogyny. It's a miracle the band recovered from this album, which makes most of Cannibal Corpse's work look like child's play. But it is beautiful for all its violence and the lyrics are sadistically ingenious; Steele's band mates asserted that he would never top them.

Peter Steele died April 14 of heart failure at the age of 48. He left a rather strange and tragic legacy. Our first introduction to the man was of a towering, handsome, Viking-of-a-man who appeared in a magazine or two of ill repute for certain generous endowments that were of a decidedly non-financial nature. By the end, he was a depleted hag with green saucers for eyes and decaying teeth, recently released from prison and trying to recover from a long battle with cocaine. His latest album was a step in the right direction for the band and his reported conversion to the Roman Catholicism of his youth left many scratching their heads. As a Christian, I still struggle with the blasphemous nature of many of his lyrics, and wonder whether anything sincere could have come out of this mordant troll.

But I'm paying tribute to Steele because he was a constant presence throughout my adolescence. I picked up a bass because of the man's symphonic technique and I still can't write anything that doesn't smack of something he already came up with. There's never been a better metal band and I'm confident there won't be. I love heavy metal as a genre, but what Type O Negative did was too interesting to fit into such a narrow category. I'll always remember driving down the highway and blasting Blood and Fire, a song hated by the band, but one that held a special place in Steele's heart. Listen to it sometime.

I haven't stopped listening to Steele's music since I first discovered it at the age of eleven. I used to think I'd grow out of it one day, that I'd mature. Now at the age of twenty-five, it is my sincere wish that I never reach maturity; this music will be with me always.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Not long ago, I finished George Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. His argument is essentially that these are the two greatest novelists of the twentieth century, but, given their radically divergent conceptions of life, would benefit the general reader by being compared and contrasted.

Steiner designates Tolstoy as an author who writes in the "epic" mode, in which we have a "primacy of form." Simply stated, this means that Tolstoy's novels are preoccupied with details that lend them a great deal of verisimilitude. He follows the Homeric tradition in concentrating on events occurring within a broader time frame. As an example, Steiner points to an instance in War and Peace in which one of the characters encounters an acquaintance several years later in a war hospital. We the reader will remember this acquaintance from several hundred pages back. Though this is clearly quite a convenient coincidence for the author, it allows him to breath a great deal of life and dynamism into his story, while at the same time keeping it from feeling forced or embellished. Tolstoy, as many have stated, was a master of details and capturing the concrete facets of life. Reading his stories is intoxicating. You feel them, hear them, smell them. In short, you're there. Think of the famous plowing scene from Ana Karenina.

Conversely, Dostoevsky operates within the "dramatic mode." This means a "primacy of action" dominates his stories. Much more in the mold of Shakespeare, his characters writhe, seethe and overflow with life. A voracious consciousness seems to characterizes their many speeches, which, incidentally, should probably be called monologues. Moreover, immediacy plays a great role here as well. Dostoevsky's stories all take place within a relatively short timespan. Part of the power of his prose is the raw, undiluted, unrefined and even vociferous feel of it. Read Notes from Underground aloud and see if your spirit isn't stirred, and see if you don't begin sharing the protagonist's feelings. The criticisms often heaped upon Dostoevsky for his clumsy style are here met with an adequate explanation in my view.

Most importantly, however, the two men saw God in different ways. Boiled down, Tolstoy's Gospel is a secular one from which Christ is ejected and Reason is supplanted. Tolstoy never could understand the musings of Christ and had no time for speculations on the afterlife. He used to chide that, once we die, two and two is still four. In other words, no matter what spiritual contortions wrack our minds, the rigid laws of logic and common sense remain inviolable. Dostoevsky, flying in the face of this hyper-rationalism, stated that he would believe in Christ in spite of any evidence opposing him. Christ superseded reason and even truth for Dostoevsky, a fascinating assertion from a man who probably launched the most profound argument against Christianity with his Grand Inquisitor. Steiner makes the suggestion that perhaps this Inquisitor is a stand-in for Tolstoy. His words would indeed find ample support with the sage of Yasnaya Polyana. Perhaps it's just speculation.

At any rate, it's a book well worth your time as well as a vital aid to confronting two elusive, but necessary giants.