Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sabazius, "You Suffer," and shifting the goal posts of extremity

I finally got around to listening to The Descent of Man, the 11 hour meisterwork by drone lords (and DoC faves) Sabazius. Earache released the album, and the pairing makes sense; Dig and co. were responsible for gifting us with the shortest song ever recorded, Napalm Death's "You Suffer." If anybody would release the world's longest metal album, it would be them.

I'll admit, I have yet to make it through the whole album in one sitting, mainly because a) I have shit to do, and b) Are you fucking kidding me? But over the course of three days, I did indeed listen to the whole thing. And it is probably the most impressive album I'll hear this year.

For the last ten years, my gold standard for slow, heavy music was Sleep's Dopesmoker; an hour-long dirge that's been described as a "stoner spiritual." Sleep took doom metal farther than it had been taken before. For anyone with time to kill and a vaporizer within reach, Dopesmoker was a pleasant (if long and meandering) journey, entreating listeners to "drop out of life with bong in hand."

Sabazius offer no such comforts. The Descent of Man isn't an escape from life, but an elucidation of its drudgery. Unfeeling, monotonous, and (when played at full volume) painful. It's like Sabazius sought to recreate all the hours you spent stuck in traffic, on a double shift at work, or behind someone paying their grocery bill in pennies. What few comforts the album offers in terms of riffs and vocals come sparingly and begrudgingly. When it comes to slow and heavy, Sabazius have taken the throne. Dopesmoker is officially now for beginners.

Which brings me back to "You Suffer," and bands who shift the goal posts of what we consider "extreme" in "extreme music". When I first heard that song, I was 17 and enjoying the last week of summer vacation with my high school metal friends. We were sitting around someone's living room, shooting the shit, letting Scum (which I had just got) provide the soundtrack to our (pretty inane) teenage musings. The first 11 tracks had flown by without much comment from any of us; I'd been listening to death metal for a few years at that point, and frankly blastbeats had lost their shock value. We had become numb.

As fate would have it, "You Suffer" hit us during a lull in our conversation. We sat in stunned silence before erupting in laughter. We had to play it again. And again. And again and again and again (which seems to be common to everyone who experiences the song for the first time). In those seconds, Napalm had ricocheted back and forth in our minds from being one of the heaviest bands on the planet, to one of the funniest. Extreme music's mandate of shorter/faster/louder had reached its inevitable peak. And that peak was no longer music, but something else that was at once sublime and ridiculous. "You suffer...but why?"

Likewise, The Descent of Man forces listeners to expand and redefine the way we think of heavy music; it is in most respects not an album but an endurance test. The majority of the reviews I've read seem to stress how little pleasure the reviewer took from the experience. Which may in fact be the point; I don't believe that The Descent of Man (and indeed, the drone oeuvre for the most part) is meant to be "enjoyed" in the conventional sense. The seemingly endless swathes of feedback, sporadic drum hits, and occasional trudging chord progressions... Like Napalm Death before them, there is a prankster element in how Sabazius challenges our willingness to embrace true extremes. It's as if they looked at the long history of slow heavy music, from Black Sabbath to Sleep and Sunn 0))), and asked "How slow can you go?"

In a Terrorizer article, the band themselves described the demands of recording for 14 hours straight as "closer to pyschological torture"; to say nothing of the time spent mixing and mastering, and the tricky task of actually releasing it. Which leads me to ask: If the album was a painful and difficult endeavor for the artists, why should it be any different for the listener? They suffered, why shouldn't you?

I don't actually know if The Descent of Man is the longest song/album ever recorded. If it is, I guess it's inevitable that some band will come along and record an even longer song; 18 hours long, 24 hours long (as Dig originally challenged Sabazius to record), maybe even 48 hours. It's all par for the course with extreme music; just as Napalm's audacity inspired its own imitators (some who attempted to outdo "You Suffer", some content to merely poke fun), so too have Sabazius thrown down the gauntlet, whether they intended to or not.

Revolution devours its own young; what's mindblowing now is only five years away from being commonplace, and another five from being quaint and retro. Those early Bathory and Hellhammer records are pretty tame by today's standards; and the big four are pretty much classic rock at this point. Maybe that's why the thing that bothers me most in metal right now is the endless regurgitation of what Slayer, Morbid Angel and Nihilist did 20 years ago. Extreme metal has become safe, predictable, and fucking boring, with few bands challenging the status quo. Kudos to Sabazius for attempting to redefine our accepted notions of "heavy." They've shifted the goal posts of extremity, a feat that's becoming increasingly rare. And that in itself is worthy of praise.

The Descent of Man is available through iTunes and as a limited edition USB. Questions about a possible release on vinyl and cd have been met with either silence or laughter.

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