Metal people scare me.
Not in an “ooh, I’m scared” kind of way, but in an “oh, that’s sad,” arrested development kind of way.
This is especially true of the black metal cabal. Black metal is supposedly the be-all and end-all of evil, and it’s just so camp that it’s silly. Everyone’s got a fake metal name (Necronomicon or Umlaut), panda bear Kiss tribute makeup (I mean, corpsepaint), and homemade nail-spike armbands. Don’t forget the unreadable band logo that looks like cleverly arranged twigs. Clearly, these are people who spend as much time rehearsing their look in front of a mirror as they do rehearsing their music in the studio, if not more.
Which is why Ludicra is one of the few bands generally classified as black metal that I’ll bother with. For one thing, the group includes vocalist Laurie Sue Shanaman and guitarist–backing vocalist Christy Cather — they’re not in the same old heavy metal boys club.
More importantly, when I want to hear heavy music, I want it to intersect with my life. I haven’t been burning churches or worshipping Thor lately. If I want to hear some fairy-tale shit, I’ll cut out the middleman and listen to Ride of the Valkyries. Alienation, loneliness, the death of relationships, and the sense of anonymity in being yet another face in a big city — this is stuff I can relate to. “Something big and bright/ Looms outside my window/ Choked with promise/ Smothered in hope/ Days plod on like machines of ceaseless ruin/ Lost in a forest of haunted buildings.” These are the opening lines of “Dead City” from Ludicra’s new album, Fex Urbis Lex Orbis (Alternative Tentacles), which quotes Saint Jerome, via Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, meaning “dregs of the city, law of the earth.” Jerome was referring to Christ’s apostles and how they were the lowliest scumbags teaching the highest truth. This is echoed in the album’s verminous cover art: restrained line drawings of roaches, ants, rats, flies, and a club-footed pigeon. The meek shall inherit the earth — or at least the urban parts — but they probably won’t be walking on two legs.
Although it’s not necessarily meant to be a concept album, Fex Urbis feels like one to me: five epic tracks, the longest almost a dozen minutes, about the entropy of modern city living. From that hopeful light outside the window, just out of reach, to “the sign that modern times is finally crashing down” in the final track, “Collapse,” the full-length reminds me of the Red Sparowes’ At the Soundless Dawn (Neurot, 2005), which, in turn, reminds me of Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi. For all its double-bass drum bombast, dark screams, and perfectly timed twin-guitar riffing, Fex Urbis Lex Orbis has more in common with Philip Glass’s score to that film than with anything released by Mayhem.
Putting in the CD for the first time, I was kind of spooked out by Shanaman’s voice. It’s an otherworldly death rattle. But when juxtaposed with both the lyrics and the relatively clean backing vocals, also sung by Shanaman, the result isn’t evil — a tone that has held so much sway over the metal community for so many years after the first, eponymous Black Sabbath album — but heavy. The music is epic without being cheesy fantasy, which makes it resonate.
I think it’d be fair to say at this point that I don’t believe in evil. I believe ignorance and delusion exist at the base of willful choices. Evil is supernatural. Ignorance is human and therefore that much scarier. Even on Halloween, nothing is going to reach out from the land beyond and get you.
Sure, Shanaman’s voice sounds evil, but when I talked to her in person, the first word that came to mind was sweet. She laughs easily, sometimes because she thinks something is funny but mostly out of nervousness, it seems. She’s a self-admitted “total choir geek.”
Drummer Aesop Hantman knew he wanted to be in a band with her since the mid-’90s, when he was in Hickey and she was in the local noise-grind act Tallow. “Here was this totally demure, nice girl that would fucking explode,” he says in a phone interview. “It was really unnerving.”
Ludicra, which includes guitarist John Cobbett and bassist Ross Sewage, are likewise unnerving. They remind you that just because there’s no bogeyman under your bed and Satan is real only to country bumpkins like the Louvin Brothers and unrepentant metal geeks, it doesn’t mean you won’t be swallowed up by forces greater than yourself: “Gone are the days of reckless vanity,” Shanaman howls as the album winds down. “Gone are the old songs from the shore…. Here’s the end of what we have dreamt of. Here’s the face of the collapse.” SFBG
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