So as not to be accused of burying the lede: Pyrrhon’s third album What Passes for Survival is another disgusting triumph, equal parts expansive and claustrophobic.
Here, however, are a few stray thoughts from the clutter of my mind:
A character in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories provides a tidy summary of the generative power of language: “To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it – well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being” (Rushdie 1990, p. 63). When questioned by a skeptical interlocutor, the character replies, “How much have you seen, eh…? Africa, have you seen it? No? Then is it truly there? And submarines? Huh? Also hailstones, baseballs, pagodas? Goldmines? Kangaroos, Mount Fujiyama, the North Pole? And the past, did it happen? And the future, will it come?” (ibid.)
In a different time and different place, Charles Dickens describes a fabrication both supernatural and more concrete in A Christmas Carol, as Ebenezer Scrooge is haunted by the ghost of his former business partner: “‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’” (Dickens 1843).
Taken together, what do these two passages illustrate? First, that language constructs reality. With a bit of license, this means that a musical vocabulary constructs a certain kind of reality as well. Second, that this constructed reality offers vicarious access to things not experienced directly. Middle-Earth is not a real place, per se, but Tolkien’s limpid mythological prose makes it so, and Summoning’s musical vocabulary does much the same. Third? Well, we’ll get to Dickens a bit later.
What I’m getting at here, mostly, is that Pyrrhon stresses me out because of how thoroughly their words and sounds create a world.. I mean, sure, plenty of bands playing frantically ugly and desperately angry music aim for a similar effect. But Pyrrhon nails the affect, too. If I try half-listening to it while doing other things, What Passes for Survival reaches in and palpates my heart and lungs; if I give it my full attention, it still demands more. Like much of the most engrossing death metal, Pyrrhon doesn’t necessarily defy analysis, but it certainly deflects it; What Passes for Survival is a tactile, experiential, phenomenological album. It reinforces the notion that music, like language, like life, makes marks directly on bodies. As such, for the listener willing to live inside the challenging, clattering animus of these forty-five minutes, the stakes are surprisingly physical.
What Passes for Survival is easily Pyrrhon’s most diverse album to date, even if most of its many threads were evident in previous albums (notably 2014’s titanic The Mother of Virtues). This means that, stylistically speaking, there’s death metal (both chin-stroking and knuckle-dragging), weirdo grind, noise rock, chaotic metalcore, and outre improvisation. It’s too pithy a formulation, but it’s also not wrong to see Pyrrhon as existing somewhere near the grimy center of a Venn diagram of Suffocation, Starkweather, and Swans. If you have to, I guess you could call it omnivorous death metal.
For all the (deserved and correct) talk about how superlatively and disorientingly heavy Pyrrhon can be, a thing that is sometimes curiously overlooked is just how excellent these guys are at their instruments. The standards for instrumental dexterity in this type of technically demanding music have been raised so high that it’s tempting to take them for granted, but the crucial thing for Pyrrhon is not just that these guys can play the hell out of fast, complicated patterns, but that they are consistently doing inventive, thematically appropriate things with those fast, complicated patterns. Colin Marston has given the band a suitably caustic, full-bodied yet ragged production, which does wonders to highlight the dangerous shearing force of every tone and texture.
“Trash Talk Landfill,” for example, boasts one of the most satisfyingly off-kilter breakdowns of the album, riding a jittery meter which Steve Schwegler’s hyperactive drum fills keep trying to tear apart and throw off-course. Earlier in the song, Erik Malave’s and Dylan DiLella’s bass and guitar run headlong at each other like the tangled knots of a long-standing argument; each one knows the familiar grooves, but they keep trying new angles at getting the upper hand. Elsewhere, the second half of “The Invisible Hand Holds a Whip” indulges in some great AM-tuner-on-the-fritz soloing while Doug Moore’s vocals are phased and panned and otherwise fucked with. The song careens out on Moore’s gargled “Our number’s up / We all gotta pay,” and torques directly into “Goat Mockery Ritual” (note: possible alternate song title “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Internet Forum”) with the same intensity of Napalm Death’s unremittingly savage recent albums.
Early album highlight “Tennessee” is a different sort of beast for Pyrrhon, spending more of its time stalking and lurking than sprinting and lunging. As the song ticks through its measured dread, the most blown-out doom sections move in a hybrid Swans/Khanate lurch, which only intensifies the eerie echoes of “Strange Fruit” in Moore’s evocative lyrics (“Where the land rolls rusted / And kudzu strangles the trees in green”). Malave’s bass tumbles and pulls the song forward through relatively free-form inter-verse bridges. This relative restraint gives the song’s inevitable, tumultuous climax a heavier weight, as from about 5:30 onward the band dallies in a fit of Gorguts/Cryptopsy acrobatics. Oh, and right at the very end it slams your silly body into dust with a geometrically beautiful fusillade of staccato drum hits and pinch squeals. It is the sort of song for which the only possible reaction is astonishment at how magnificently it hangs together; the sort of song that is the mirror which shows normal death metal songs that they are clowns.
Do you need more convincing? In general, this sort of willfully inaccessible death metal is an all or nothing affair. (Bearing in mind, of course, that death metal writ large is willfully inaccessible from the perspective of literally everyone outside of heavy metal’s mottled orbit.) But as the standard party line goes, Pyrrhon has another leg up on the vast majority of other death metal bands because Doug Moore’s lyrics are A) good, and B) about something:
I can’t tell you exactly what all of the songs are about, but Moore’s lyrics deserve careful study, both for their meaning and for how they work both with and against the music, sometimes serving as punctuation and others as interruption. “The Happy Victim’s Creed” seems, in its way, to be about addiction as well as what motivates it; “Trash Talk Landfill” luxuriates in the ironic task of using words to dissect the sense of futility and endlessness that goes hand in hand with pursuing writing as a vocation; the three-part “Unraveling” is a potpourri of meditations on living in a time that feels riven by so many fundamental collapses, and contains perhaps the finest mission statement for the album as a whole:
“The unraveling scream/
Of the precious shared bonds, /
As we wrench free /
Of their grip on our lives.”
Moore’s language matters here: it’s a scathing indictment, to be sure, but we don’t escape as innocent victims with hard times forced unwillingly upon us. “As we wrench free” implicates every last one of us in that scream; we girded it on of our own free will, and of our own free will we wear it. Is its pattern strange to you?
All of which brings us back to Dickens. The grueling, show-stopping twelve-minute album closer “Empty Tenement Spirit” was not, I think, written with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in mind. Neither does it necessarily intend to evoke Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” (certainly Moore finds no prophecy in the song’s tenement halls), nor Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” nor Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” but folks, as the man says, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Radiohead channels Dylan’s unrest into a fantasy of escape:
“Up above, aliens hover, /
Making home movies for the folks back home /
Of all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits, /
Drill holes in themselves, and live for their secrets.”
What Passes for Survival doesn’t offer that easy out, though. (Yorke continues, later, “I wish that they’d swoop down in a country lane… Take me on board their beautiful ship…”)
In A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge to deliver a warning, shaking his chains to provide the dramatic impetus for Scrooge’s eventual transformation. But the timing matters: Scrooge’s visitation happens right at the outset of the story, as a promise that it may not be too late for him to change. The reason any of this is even passably relevant is that Pyrrhon’s “Empty Tenement Spirit” concludes (and thus ends the album) with a Neubauten-ish clatter of a heavy chain being whipped repeatedly against some metal object. This is where culture’s tangled web of interlocking reference intervenes to draw connections where none were likely intended.
The rattling of Pyrrhon’s chains cannot plausibly be said to serve as a warning, because it comes at the very end – not just the very end of the song, but apparently at the very end of society as we know it. Moore’s lyrics briefly allude to man-made environmental catastrophe (‘the waters we raised”) and then slink tangentially through a cityscape devoid of all life, where “[t]he generations echo unlived” and the absent humans are “pinioned fools now spared their sorry fate.”
Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” ends with one of the greatest epiphanic lines in all of poetry. It is a jarring and astonishing move, but it follows Dickens in only serving its purpose if delivered at the appropriate time – in advance of whatever sudden catastrophe or gradual, inexorable declination it seeks to forestall:
“for here there is no place
That does not see you. You must change your life.”
Moore’s final couplet in “Empty Tenement Spirit” is spat with such deformed and contorted pronunciation that it has to be heard to be believed, as the band reenacts the death throes that the song implies are a foregone conclusion:
“What wild spirit could thrive on such pain? /
What primal will would cling to this place?”
What Passes for Survival is disgusting music made by beautiful people, or maybe the other way around. If the message is dire, it may still stop just the tiniest of steps short of utter resignation and fatalism. Earlier I said that Pyrrhon’s chains are not Marley’s chains because they come only at the end. This is a lie. If you listen carefully to the intro to the album opener “The Happy Victim’s Creed,” you’ll hear a disorienting cut-up assemblage of band rehearsal outtakes, but among those cut-up sounds is the unmistakable harshness of that same heavy chain in “Empty Tenement Spirit.”
I don’t know if that can be interpreted as fair warning, but because I am inventing the Dickens-Pyrrhon connection wholesale, I claim squatter’s rights. What I do know is that most death metal – or, hell, most music of any type – doesn’t invite or warrant this type of close consideration. That these ugly sounds which seem so formless and hostile at first encounter should still be sitting with me all these months later, insisting that I listen again to really hear what they were saying, insisting that I answer the questions they are asking, is the mark of a truly exceptional band making the finest work of their still young career.
One of the original illustrations made by John Leech for the 1843 first edition of A Christmas Carol sports the extremely Pyrrhon-ish caption “Ghosts of Departed Usurers,” and appears near the following thought from Dickens: “The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.”
If Pyrrhon laments our “grey lives endured with purposeless grace” in “Empty Tenement Spirit,” perhaps they’re also lamenting the notion of a future (how near or far?) in which we have all lost the power to interfere for good.
But the future, will it come?