The Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya, moved into the appropriately named Quinta del Sordo and (possibly) spent the years between 1819-1823 decorating the walls with over a dozen dark murals. At 72, Goya was a widower, deaf, (since he was 46 from a disease he was lucky to survive) and paranoid. He expressed himself through his mural’s themes of darkness and despair during those fourteen years of his self-imposed isolation.
Many have considered the fourteen black paintings the closest to being hermetically honest with how and why certain things are depicted. The murals were not intended for anyone else but Francisco de Goya to behold which gives them a personal quality that would have been quite uncommon during that time. Goya let himself go in those pieces keeping the intended messages to himself – assuming that there were any at all.
Despite the dark imagery in the paintings, it’s the mystery about them that creates the real intrigue. The majority of what is widely accepted about the paintings is pure speculation. Goya left no information regarding what his intentions were nor what he was thinking. The man didn’t even give any titles to the pieces, leaving others to do the dirty work of categorizing after his death in 1828.
In 1874 the murals were transferred onto canvas at the request of a baron who wanted to sell the copies. However, the baron donated the paintings to the Spanish state and are now displayed at the Museo del Prado.
- Atropos (The Fates)
A reinterpretation of the mythological subject of the goddesses of Destiney. The hideous “Daughters of Night” were headed by Atropos, the scissor toting goddess of death who cuts the thread of life; Clotho with her child (an allegory for life possibly), and Lachesis who is the mirror peeping symbol of time. There is a bound man behind them who is likely awaiting their decision about his fate.
- Two Old Men
Two elderly figures dressed in friar’s habits stand before a black background. The man in front looks like Led Zeppelin’s hermit with his long beard and cane. The character behind him looks a good deal more demonic and is whisper/shouting into the old man’s ear. Maybe a remark on Goya’s own deafness.
- Two Old Men Eating Soup
Two elderly figures loom forward from another black background. It is assumed that they are both men but it is also likely that they are a crone and a corpse. The first figure has a strange distorted smile, possibly from a lack of teeth while the other man seems more dead than alive. Possibly a dark joke by Goya about growing old.
- Fight with Cudgels
Two men are about to beat each other with sticks while standing in front of an open landscape. This is likely Goya commenting on the policies and politics of Ferdinand VII
- Witches’ Sabbath
Satan presides over a black mass in his standard black goat form like a silhouette. The coven that surrounds him are disfigured, and terrified witches. It is believed to be a satire on the credulity of the age and a condemnation of both superstition and the Spanish Inquisition.
- Men Reading
A group of six men huddled together reading a printed page held in the lap of a seated central figure. Although it is not known for certain, they are often thought to be politicians reading, and passing comments on, a newspaper article about themselves.
- Judith and Holofernes
The picture is a personal reinterpretation of the narrative of the Book of Judith, in which the protagonist saves Israel from the assault of the general Holofernes by seducing and beheading him. Judith is the only historical figure who can be identified with certainty among the Black Paintings. It is likely that Holofernes represents the Spanish King, whom Goya despised.
- A Pilgrimage to San Isidro
A group of prominent figures in the night, apparently intoxicated and singing with distorted faces. Figures from diverse social strata also figure in the painting. In the foreground a group of humble extraction appears, while farther into the background top hats and nuns’ habits can be seen.
- Women Laughing
Three figures, two witch-like women and the profile of a man at the lower left of the canvas, huddled together against a black background and lit from the front left. A common interpretation involves two prostitutes laughing at a mentally retarded man as he masturbates. Personally, I don’t see it as such.
- Procession of the Holy Office
A group of people travel upon a road that is likely on a cliff. Very similar to Heads in a Landscape.
- The Dog
A dog is either emerging from or sinking into the horizon. The feel is overwhelmingly hopeless especially since the eye rests squarely in the void.
- Saturn Devouring His Son
Certainly the most famous of the paintings. Thought to be an image of a crazed looking Saturn devouring his child as so that there will be no others in the universe with his strength. Definitely a pattern that would have gotten CPS a knocking at his door. Possibly Goya’s way of lamenting his lost youth.
- La Leocadia
A woman commonly identified as Goya’s maid, companion and, most likely lover, Leocadia Weiss. She is dressed in a dark, almost funeral maja dress, and leans against what is either a mantelpiece or burial mound, as she looks outward at the viewer with a sorrowful expression. Another, more unfair title of this painting is The Seductress. Personally she doesn’t look like a woman goin’ seducin’.
- Fantastic Vision
Two figures, one male and one female, are shown airborne, hovering above a broad landscape. The woman wears a white dress covered by a red-rose colored robe. Both seem fearful, she covers the lower half of her face with her robe, his face is deeply disturbed. They are each looking in opposite directions, while he points to a town on top of a mountain on the right of the canvas.
Concluding the Inconclusive
There is a powerful emotional charge to Goya’s final paintings that is hard to shake. No matter what the details may or may not mean I think an appreciation for pieces as a whole is what really matters. Goya never expected these works to be displayed and ironically, these are the most famous of all his work. Perhaps while mourning his mortality he was actually solidifying his eternal relevance to the world.
NEXT TIME: EMBRACING THE NIGHTMARE
Have you ever seen something that was so indescribably weird it actually made sense? What about something so disturbing it was beautiful? It might sound ridiculous, but Chris Cunningham’s work combines these dualities seamlessly.
Though Cunningham doesn’t consider his work to be “dark” it is difficult classifying it otherwise. His short films and music videos are saturated with some strange presence in the dark dreamscapes he concocts. Using quick edits masterfully synced to music he creates worlds are equally seductive and haunting; profane yet poetic.
The Englishman known as Chris Cunningham made his appearance in 1997 with the music video “Come to Daddy” by Aphex Twin, which gained him much notoriety. The video was meant to be funny though it depicts a derelict dystopian city that is terrorized by a gang of freakish looking, demon worshipping children. A lot of people didn’t get the joke, but the video put him in the way of being a director with an “edge.” I just wouldn’t recommend watching it alone at night.
The success of “Come to Daddy” also marked the beginning of the ongoing collaborative relationship between Chris Cunningham and Aphex Twin (Richard David James). Aphex Twin had two (the other being “Windowlicker”) music videos directed by Cunningham and has also allowed Cunningham to use his music for his short films “Monkey Drummer,” “Rubber Johnny” and “Flex.”
Others have also called upon Cunningham to direct their videos. The list includes a handful the oh-so edgy stars during the mid to late nineties, including Bjork and Madonna.
In order to get the idea of what his work entails it’s important to take a deep peek into some of his more profound works.
Aphex Twin: “Windowlicker”
Due to his failed joke with the last Aphex Twin video, Cunningham made Widowlicker with the humor in the forefront. The video is generally about two vulgar men trying to impress some women in order to gain entry to their nethers. Aphex Twin shows up in his extra-extra-extra-long-stretch-limo destroying the vulgar duos car and seduces their targets.
The warped faces from “Come to Daddy” show up again but this time upon the bodies of the dozen or so nubile female bodies. Despite their grotesque faces the vulgar men still try to get involved with them. Then there’s the obligatory 90’s champagne spray-off while the women shake their asses is slow motion. I suppose you could say that the video does succeed in being quite cheeky.
…I’ll show myself out…
Portishead: “Only you”
This flowing paranoia flavored melancholic dream sequence is possibly one of Cunningham’s most beautiful works. Cunningham perfectly matched the softness of Beth Gibbons’ voice as she and the boy actor float in a dark alley.
The scenes of Gibbons and the boy were shot underwater, but the video was not intended to be about people underwater. This led to many hours of air bubbles being painted out of shots in order to retain the surreal effect without the, “hey they’re underwater” vibe.
Madonna, Madonna and Madonna hum out this yoga ballad in an icy blue desert landscape. Wikipedia sums it up as, “Madonna as an ethereal, witchy, melancholy persona, shapeshifting into a flock of birds and a black dog.” Which is pretty much spot on.
The video is gorgeous and haunting despite the pop diva. It’s the best Madonna video in my opinion, seconded only by David Fincher’s direction on “Vogue.”
Gil Scott-Heron: “New York is Killing Me (Chris Cunningham Remix)”
The video was made just before the blues legend died in 2011. For Cunningham, the video is quite simple with a superimposed portrait of Gil Scott-Heron singing while multiple shots of a night-time train trail behind him. The music is hauntingly disturbing, but faithful to the unspoken dark truth about life and addiction.
It would be wrong to not talk about “Rubber Johnny” at this point in our journey, especially since the actor portraying Johnny is none other than Chris Cunningham himself.
In short the video is about an uber flexible invalid who snorts train tracks of coke. Also there is a Chihuahua. Aphex Twin allowed Cunningham to use his track “Afx237 V7” from the appropriately titled Drukqs.
The Heart May Be Black yet It Still Beats
Chris Cunningham is pretty much in semi-retirement these days but his influence remains particularly with music videos. David Wilson’s work stands out the most in this respect, particularly with the video “Titanium” by David Guetta. In fact, any of the music videos based on David Guetta’s music seem very much like Chris Cunningham’s work. Particularly “She-Wolf” and “Where Them Girls At”.
Another honorable mention would be the short film “The Cat with Hands” by the animator Robert Morgan. Not entirely focused on music (though there is a bit of a whistling motif) it does share a similar tongue-in-cheek (pun intended) dark tone.
However good these alternatives are, there will never be anyone like Chris Cunningham. I hope that one day he’ll get his chance with a major feature. Cough *Neuromancer* cough, cough.
The Demon Ego Emerges
Maybe you can call it a scar, but I’ve always had a deep appreciation for Chris Cunningham’s work. My ego tells me that somehow I’m able to peak through the same portal from which he watches the world. To be honest, my ego is very similar to a boney demon with a distorted human face.
It’s difficult to discuss disgust without being, well, disgusting. Disgust is the emotional response of revulsion to something considered offensive or unpleasant, and is one of those emotions with a facial expression that is universally recognizable. It is believed that disgust had evolved from the response to possibly harmful foods for example, chunky milk or spoiled vegetables. Even though there are several common areas for the reaction of disgust there are other things that cause similar responses which is individually unique and whatever culture they belong to.
There are those who love the gross-out and entire genres have been created just to appeal to these individuals. You’ve got Splatterpunk, Torture Porn (Hostel), Body Horror just to name a few. For those who have gore-filled tastes there are other items available some ear wax candy, or a loaf of bread that’s been shaped into a severed head.
Why Are We Talking About This?
I don’t personally enjoy the “ick” factor, but as a lover of horror I need to deal with it on some level. Since I’m also a firm believer that art (particularly film) has the right to manipulate our emotions as long as it serves the end product. My goal here is to hopefully show evidence of this theory at work in the most tasteful way possible. But first, we need some background…
The Science of Sick
Disgust can be easily divided into two types:
- Physical Disgust: Disgust towards something physical or metaphorically grounded. For example, touching a dead body, or putting rotten garbage in your mouth. This type of disgust is more universally grounded.
- Moral Disgust: Disgust that is related to a course of action. Moral disgust is more conscious and more layered in performance. For example a corrupt official, or getting a tattoo. This type of disgust is more culturally grounded.
The feeling of disgust is often associated with the feeling that something pure has been violated. Disgust is also theorized as an evaluative emotion that can control moral behavior. When one experiences disgust this emotion might signal that certain behaviors, objects or people are to be avoided in order to preserve their purity.
It’s Easy to Be Gross
Disgust is easy to evoke. Stephen King describes disgust as the lowest element of horror fiction calling it a,”…bottom-level cheap gimmick.”
“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”
— Stephen King
Eat the Winter of Cannibals
I mentioned earlier about the possibility of disgust being used in a classier way. It may sound like a stretch, but I’ll prove it by using an example from a fantastic film, Ravenous.
Ravenous is a 1999 horror/black comedy film about cannibalism directed by the late Antonia Bird. The film is set in California during the 1840s, just after the Mexican-American war. The protagonist is one Captain Boyd, a former second lieutenant who in a moment of cowardice played dead while his unit was slaughtered. When he is carted by the enemy with the rest of the dead he involuntarily consumes his commanding officer’s blood. In a sudden moment of bravery Boyd takes on the enemy and captures the Mexican command.
The film opens with a scene during Boyd’s congratulatory dinner where he is served a rather grotesque looking steak. Plagued by guilt (and likely a fair amount of PTSD) Captain Boyd stares at his serving looking clammy and pale while the officers around him consume their meat in bestial delight.
In order to fully get across Boyd’s emotional state the steak had to be as unappealing as possible. The meat looks almost burnt even though it is swimming in a puddle of brown blood. The gristle filled bone in the center glares out like a marbled eye of the dead. The steak itself is probably fine and made out of a 100% not people, but the director forced the viewers to make the connection between the steak and the human blood Boyd consumed leaving him the only survivor. Not something he’s proud of.
Towards the end of the film Captain Boyd is served some savory stew made by, and from some comrades. With the exception of the end of a humerus sticking up from the cauldron, the stew itself looks quite delicious and bizarrely comforting. He is aware that the meat is human, but he is also being forced to eat or die. After a brief montage of reactions, Boyd hunches over and eats.
Antonia Bird wanted to get across to us what was going on in Boyd’s mind without the messiness of exposition. She used the emotional response of disgust to reveal Boyd’s guilt, trauma, self-loathing and eventual hunger (pun so intended) for revenge. It’s probably especially effective on me because I have issues with food, but a cannibal movie shouldn’t be appetizing.
“It’s lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.”
— Colonel Hart from Ravenous
Blood and Guts
For every tasteful use of disgust there will be at least a dozen Human Centipedes, or Saws or whatever over done schlock comes out. And, for every one of those works there will be hordes of people cramming themselves in the sticky theater seats just to watch the horror (the horror, the horror) unfold before them. I guess that’s just humans for you, if it’s supposedly bad for us the more we crave it, even if it’s just the poking of an evolutionary emotional reaction.
Santa Muerte is a Mexican and Southwestern American folk saint, meaning that she is not recognized by the Catholic Church despite her popular association with other Catholic saints. She is considered to be the personification of death, although she is not seen as a dead person herself. Her worshippers associate her with healing, protection and ensuring a path to the afterlife. Santa Muerte is one of many personifications of death in Latin countries, but she is the only female, and some even consider her the eighth archangel.
A small portion of her worshippers don’t believe her to be a saint because she exhibits signs of jealously (she doesn’t like her statues to be placed next to statues of other saints, even Jesus) and also grants evil requests. Instead she is believed to be a fallen angel stuck in purgatory and trying to win back God’s favor. That being said, she isn’t considered Satanic either because she is also capable of granting “good” miracles.
A Corpse by Any Other Name…
Santa Muerte translates as “Saint Death,” or “Holy Death.” Her worshippers have also created many other monikers for her to go by.
- Santísima Muerte (“Most Holy Death”)
- la Flaca (“The Skinny Lady”)
- la Huesuda (“the Bony Lady”)
- la Niña Blanca (“the White Girl
- la Hermana Blanca (“the White Sister”)
- la Niña Bonita (“the Pretty Girl”)
- la Dama Poderosa (“the Powerful Lady”)
- la Madrina (“the Godmother”)
- Señora de las Sombras (“Lady of the Shadows”)
- Señora Blanca (“White Lady”)
- Señora Negra (“Black Lady”)
- Niña Santa (“Holy Girl”)
- Doña Bella Sebastiana (“Our Beautiful Lady Sebastienne”)
Santa Muerte is only identifiable as female by her clothing and by her hair. Her appearance changes between worshippers, but she is generally depicted as a sort of skeletal version of the Virgen de Guadalupe.
As an icon she can be associated as a female grim reaper, or grim reapress carrying a scythe and often several other items.
The Things She Carried
- Scythe – Symbolizing the cutting of negative energies and influences, as well as a clear representation of death. To some it also represents hope and prosperity. It may also mean the moment of death, with the long handle showing death’s long reach that will affect anyone.
- Globe – Represents Death’s dominion over the earth as well as the tomb to which all will return. The earth being in her hand is also symbolic of her vast power.
- Scales – Equity, Justice, Impartiality and Divine Will
- Hourglass – The time of life on earth as well as the both the worlds above and below.
- Owl – Wisdom and her ability to navigate through the darkness.
- Oil Lamp – Intelligence and Spirit, to light the way through the darkness of ignorance and doubt.
Offerings to Santa Muerte
- Apple (fruit)
Worship and Cult
The Cult of Santa Muerte is considered a “cult of crisis” meaning that the numbers of worshippers grow during times of hardship. Those most attracted to the cult tend to be working class individuals or general outcasts in hopeless situations. This is possibly why she is linked with Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of hardships and lost causes.
The intricacies of the cult tend to maintain a heavily Catholic flavor, despite the distance of association the Catholic Church has maintained. Because of this the worship of Santa Muerte attracts individuals who less inclined to adhere, or seek out the traditional Catholic Church for their spiritual needs. Many of the worshippers tend to live on the fringes of societies laws, like drug traffickers (hence it being called a narco-cult,) prostitutes, gang members among others. The military and police also tend to pray to her for their weapons, ammunition and the like.
The widespread association of Santa Muerte occurred on August 19, 1998 when a shrine was found in the home of the notorious Mexican police officer and kidnapper Daniel Arismendi Lopez, or El Mochaorejas (“The Ear Chopper”) he was taken into custody. A large amount of criticism occurred when he was allowed to take a statuette of Santa Muerte into his prison cell. The event is also what spurred the mainstream association of Santa Muerte with extremely violent criminality.
Even though the Catholic Church denies any affiliation with the Cult of Santa Muerte, the worshippers do not consider themselves atheists or, Protestants nor are they Satanists; instead they’ve created a new religion that suits their life-style. The cult’s allure is mainly because it accepts the struggles and violence these people often face in their lives.
The Secret Lives of Cult Members
Due to the condemnation of the Catholic Church as well as the perceived criminality of worshippers, Santa Muerte was often kept in secret. Since the early 2000s the cult has gained some mainstream acceptance, but it is still considered somewhat taboo. There was a Revival of Santa Muerte during between the 1940’s and mid 60’s which helped to bring the cult out of the shadows, so to speak.
Santa Muerte and the LGBT
Because the LGBT crowd tends to be a group of outsiders, Santa Muerte is seen as a nonjudgmental protector. Many ask for her protection from violence, hatred, disease and to aid in the search of love. She is commonly invoked in same-sex weddings performed in the cult, which recognize homosexual unions.
Popculture of Santa Muerte
There isn’t much in the way of any American mainstream representations of Santa Muerte. However, there are three that I consider quite notable,
- The Book of Life, a recent animated film about Mexican culture, specifically Dia de los Muertos, has a representation of Santa Muerte voiced by Kate del Catillo
- In Breaking Bad a scene was depicted with the silent sociopathic hitmen, The Cousins crawl on their bellies to worship a statue of the saint.
- American Horror Story: Coven, an image of Santa Muerte is shown over Sarah Paulson’s name card which hints at the characters future.
Despues de la Muerte
Santa Muerte is neither saint nor god, nor is she living or dead. She is a personification of our inevitable mortality. She is symbolic of danger and great acceptance. Santa Muerte is a deity that allows worshippers to see what they want to in her, while it has also been said that she is incredibly jealous and prone to punishment. If she is to represent anything, it would be the acceptance of a good death in a violent and insane world.
Morticia Addams is the quintessential macabre matriarch. She is both beautiful and disturbing, inviting yet repugnant. Morticia has been brought to life in practically every medium. Many actresses have squeezed themselves into that excruciating black dress to portray the seductively gloomy woman. The original dark mother, Morticia is a fantastic symbol for other women who find themselves at odds with the illusorily “normal” world.
A Man Named Charles
Charles Addams (yes, that Charles Addams) designed the mother of his ooky comic family after his first wife, Barbara Jean Day. The two met in late 1942 and were married for eight years, later divorcing because Addams despised small children and refused to adopt. She later married author John Hersey and had a daughter.
Addams on Morticia:
“The real head of the family…low voiced, incisive and subtle, smiles are rare…ruined beauty…contemptuous and original and with fierce family loyalty…even in disposition, muted, witty, sometimes deadly…given to low-keyed rhapsodies about her garden of deadly nightshade, henbane and dwarf’s hair…”
– Charles Addams, 1963
The name “Morticia” implies “death” from the Latin word “mortis” and is likely derived from the word “mortician,” an envious namesake.
Described as a witch (she can trace her family back to Salem), Morticia is only ever seen in tight black hobble skirted dresses with octopus like fringes at the bottom. She also has long straight black hair paired with very pale skin that she pats down with baking powder. In essence she is everything that Robert Smith’s sad little black heart could ever hope to be ruined by.
Other than being known for snipping off the heads of roses, Morticia is a devoted wife and mother. When she isn’t seducing her husband, Gomez, with French words and torture, she makes every effort to make sure her children don’t do anything pleasant. She knows her family well, living, dead or undecided.
The Women Doomed to Portray Her
Carolyn Jones, The Addams Family (1964-1966)
Considered the original Morticia, Carolyn Jones got her biggest role when she was 35. Born in Amarillo Texas she grew up with a severe asthma condition that left her with little to do other than read Hollywood magazines and dream. If her condition allowed she could actually get to see a movie. She was eventually spotted by an agent at the Pasadena Playhouse in California leading to a more than modest film career before landing the role of Morticia.
Although the show was a hit, ABC decided to cancel the series in order to achieve a new tone. This devastated Jones and she was unable to regain the small prestige and ended up taking bit parts in film and television until her death in 1983 of colon cancer.
Ellie Harvie, The New Addams Family (1998-1999)
The Candian actress portrayed Morticia in the short lived attempt at a re-boot. Harvie earned her degree in political studies and in 1987 took a two year course in theatre study. She has gained great prestige for her comedy and improve skills and has been in on The X-Files and Stargate SG-1. However, The New Addams Family only had 65 episodes but, according to Wikipedia, was well received.
Janet Waldo, The Addams Family (1973)
Born in 1920, Janet Waldo has had a long and varied career in voice work. Known as the voice of Judy Jetson and Corliss Archer among many others, Waldo is still working today for the character Joanne Allen in Adventures in Odyssey, a radio drama series. Waldo’s expierence as Morticia was short lived with the show only running for 16 episodes, with the intention being an animated continuation of the original 1960’s sitcom.
Nancy Linari The Addams Family (1992)
Not much is known about Nancy Linari other than the fact that she has done a substantial amount of voice work and played the secretary of Harvard University in The Social Network. Linari did voice Morticia for two seasons of a second attempt of The Addams Family cartoon. The show may have fared a little better in comparison to the last cartoon due to the successful film adaptation from the previous year.
Granddaughter to actor Walter Huston and daughter to John Huston, Anjelica is the third member of her family to have won an Academy award. Huston has a lustrous career with her turn as Morticia Addams being one of the darkest highlights. Known for so many characters, It’s really Anjelica Huston’s take on the morbid vamp that outshines all the other (with the exception of Carolyn Jones, but Huston will always be the original Morticia to me) attempts at the character. With a constant Old Hollywood lighting her eyes, and a sultry yet morbidly playful personality Huston really made Morticia the best part of both films. Huston captured everything about Morticia that Charles Addams described without making the character a weak attempt at parody.
Daryl Hannah: Addams Family Reunion (1998)
Daryl Hannah also has a rather exceptional career, most notably her work in Blade Runner and Kill Bill. Hannah became interested in movies at a young age, partly due to insomnia. She says she was very shy growing up. Unfortunately her turn as Morticia in the direct to video film was rather so-so, but she was fortunate enough to have Tim Curry playing her husband Gomez. The film was sort of intended as a pilot for the television series, The New Addams Family.
Bebe Neuwirth: The Addams Family (2010)
A Tony winning actress Bebe Neuwirth is most commonly recognized in Cheers and Fraiser. Neuwirth already resembles Morticia with light skin and dark hair, and with her distinct somewhat low voice, sounds like Morticia as well. The stage show is based off of the original cartoons, making it stand out from the previous incarnations.
Brooke Shields: The Addams Family (2011)
Brooke Shields was a famous child star and model. She is most well known for her work in Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon among others. She took over the role of Morticia in the staged musical of The Addams Family in 2011.
Morticia Addams is possibly one of the most fantastic characters for any actress (and maybe a few daring actors as well) to portray. Most everyone can admire her cold as steel countenance and wicked yet hilarious lines. Perhaps not all are equipped to take on the persona, after-all it takes a demented person to be an Addams in the first place.
To classify the album F♯ A♯ ∞ (F sharp, A sharp, infinity) as atmospheric would be denying something crucial about the work. The album may seem like background music during some menial task, but it will ferociously fight against that. There has been other music that attempts this in somewhat similar way, but many end up using lyrics or a loud, percussive sound to shock the listener out of their stupor. F♯ A♯ ∞ is able to shock without by foregoing cliché by embracing the ideas it represents with eloquent style.
A Brief History of Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Taking their name from a 1976 Japanese documentary (by Mitsuo Yanagimachi) GY!BE are a Canadian post-rock band originating in Montreal, Quebec in 1994. Originally starting out with three members (two guitar players and a bassist) the band eventually expanded by inviting any associates who could play something into the group, one time even having 15 members. Eventually the group stabilized to about 10 members before the release of F♯ A♯ ∞.
Many of the band members have been classified as anarchists, though it’s not a label any of them have openly identified with. Even so, GY!BE have a strong apolitical component to the bands music, which seems especially evident in F♯ A♯ ∞ particularly with the first part, Dead Flag Blues.
…And a Dark Wind Blows
F♯ A♯ ∞ (referencing the keys in which each side of the record begins and to the endless loop at its end) is the debut album of GY!BE release first in 1997 and again in 1998. Devoid of traditional lyrics the album contains mainly long instrumental songs broken into movements. Originally the album was released in very limited quantities, distributed mainly at live performances and advertised by word of mouth.
All of the tracks feature several field recordings and/or sampled sounds from other works. The juxtaposition of these sounds with the often eerily beautiful music gives the album an apocalyptic feel.
Original Vinyl and Packaging
The original vinyl was produced in a small collection of only five-hundred which contained an intentional groove that would cause the record play the final coda ad infinitum, or, more likely, until the listener would give in and put something else on. This was eventually named “String Loop Manufactured,” though I haven’t been able to find out by who(m). Unfortunately this intentional flaw could not be put on the compact disc or digital versions.
The vinyl jackets were all handmade by the band with one of three original photographs – depicting a water tower, train or road sign – were pasted onto the covers. Nothing on the sleeve or jacket mentioned the track names, but where instead scratched into the run-off groove of the record itself, accompanied by catalog number and side indication.
There were also several other items included in the packaging, such as a Canadian penny that was crushed by a train, an original drawing and a silk-screened image dedicated to blues musician Reverend Gary Davis.
“The car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel
And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides
And a dark wind blows
The government is corrupt
And we’re on so many drugs
With the radio on and the curtains drawn
We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
And the machine is bleeding to death
The sun has fallen down
And the billboards are all leering
And the flags are all dead at the top of their poles
It went like this:
The buildings tumbled in on themselves
Mothers clutching babies
Picked through the rubble
And pulled out their hair
The skyline was beautiful on fire
All twisted metal stretching upwards
Everything washed in a thin orange haze
I said, “Kiss me, you’re beautiful –
These are truly the last days”
You grabbed my hand
And we fell into it
Like a daydream
Or a fever
We woke up one morning and fell a little further down
For sure it’s the valley of death
I open up my wallet
And it’s full of blood”
The album begins with a monologue taken from one of the band members unfinished screenplays. The ominous introduction is backed by a string melody where the speaker depicts a derelict world controlled by a corrupt government that inebriates its people. For a significant portion of the intro there is a low droning noise until the line, “It went like this,” when the strings come in.
The introduction is followed by the sounds of a train which eventually develops into a Western-themed melody. The track is eventually capped by a significantly more upbeat section. Perhaps to show how numbing the drugs are or to state that maybe the apocalypse isn’t so bad after all. I’ve had similar feelings during my more nihilistic moments.
Named for the blighted Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the track begins with a street preacher shouting as he is backed by bagpipes. This seems symbolic since the preacher is unintelligible (and likely insane) as he screams a possible apocalyptical warning with the siren like (as in police/ambulance/fire-drill etc.) bagpipes in the background.
When the preachers voice fades a movement called “The Sad Mafioso…” takes over and includes one of the rare moments in which GY!BE have been recorded singing. This particular section may seem familiar to those who have seen the Danny Boyle film 28 Days Later. Boyle even admits that F♯ A♯ ∞ significant inspiration for the film, even going so far as to say that he cut the film to the album.
Considerably longer (almost 30 minutes) than the other two songs. Featured on the song is an interviewee referencing Hank Williams Jr.’s song, “A Country Boy Can Survive.” A Cello eventually replaces him and is followed by a series of other instruments, including a glockenspiel.
Eventually a distorted singing voice can be heard repeatedly singing the phrase, “Where are you going?” The voice/song is taken from the 1970 musical Godspell, where the singer begs to walk with “you.” The character of Godspell likely means God/Jesus, but for the intents of GY!BE the original meaning becomes just as distorted as her voice. Perhaps the intention being that providence has become purgatory, especially when considering the infinite loop, which can only be fully experienced on vinyl; it’s not “hipster” to say that about this particular album.
Where Are You Going…
F♯ A♯ ∞ isn’t an atmospheric album at its core, nor even at its heart. Atmospheric music really only works if you’re not paying attention, as if the music sounds better when ignored.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor doesn’t buy into that philosophy nor do they rely on lyrics (if only rarely) and repetitive beats to get the listener’s attention. This is not an album for sleeping, exercise or erasing the boredom of a long commute. F♯ A♯ ∞ is a collaboration that needs to be experienced wholly. It’s an experience of accumulated sounds where the silence has the most important message.
Children are probably the scariest creatures out there. Fragile little machines always –always – seeking out danger, and we’re the ones held legally responsible should anything happen. What’s more damning is that we are wired to want them. People are designed to spread their genes well into the unknowable future. Vulnerability rests on both “adults” and “children” and that is the best case scenario.
THE METAPHORICAL CHILD
The metaphor of “the child” is very much made to entice guilt, or obligation out of the viewer. Since we automatically feel a sense of protection towards “the child” whenever that symbol seems to be in danger we panic a little. It’s natural, and actually pretty damn necessary.
Innocence obliterated before its time is possibly the saddest thing that can (and does, and has, and will forever) happen(s) to any person(s). It’s such a common ploy that it borders on cliché, yet it’s still an effective tool at bringing out a specific type of dread.
Children have such a natural aura of innocence about them which makes them all the more dangerous. Many works have dwelled on this human trait, and many with great success. The cliché of children in danger is just as common as children being the danger. It makes the viewer consider the possibility of having to guard oneself against what they should be protecting. Where does humanity lie when the “innocents” are the greatest predators?
KIDDIES EN MASSE
Just one evil/possessed/corrupted child is terrifying; now imagine a swarm of them. A brood of blood thirsty brats surrounding you and staring you down, knowing you can’t hurt them, and even if you did they’d still out number you. Personally I’d rather deal with zombies.
This particular ploy seems to take advantage of the consequential fear about over-breeding. Consequences are just as frightening as demons, but even more real and likely to destroy a person. Karma is a mother fucker.
WHY SO SCARED?
Perhaps it’s common to see children displayed as angelic perfection, and we are hardwired (1 part biological, 1 part social) to believe that. Children are supposed to be cared for by us, and we are supposed to want to do it. The sake of humanity and “humanity” depend on it. Not meeting those responsibilities can destroy the person the child becomes which may cause a long chain destroyed lives to carry on into that unknowable future; and that’s what makes children are so goddamn terrifying.
It Starts With Mom
Mom occasionally read Stephen King’s short stories to us before bed time. It wasn’t a sadistic act on her part, more like the givings in of a mother who just wants her children to go to bed fortheloveofGod. It wasn’t her fault that my brother and I so desperately wanted more of the horrors that she would try to hide from us despite her own dark curiosity.
My brother and I grew up during the Goosebumps reign of kiddy terror, which suited us for a time. The stories weren’t nearly involved as the adult horrors that neither of us understood but were attracted to nonetheless, and the series did relieve our mother of some guilt about immersing us in what we (supposedly) weren’t ready for.
Ready For What?
It’s safe to say that life is not safe, especially for children. Ideally the universe would be a fair place without any violent disorders and tragic thoughtlessness. However, people seem to thrive on strife and often use it to manipulate others in arguments and advertisements. It’s possibly one of the excuses as to why religions were conceived since peoples needed some kind of “control” over the agony of living.
Dwelling on all of the evils and unfortunate events of life isn’t a very good way to cope, nor is wise to focus entirely on “good” things. There should be a sort of balance of light and dark in everyone, though that can seem just as impossible as obtaining perfection.
Rushing the Inevitable
Mom didn’t really want to expose us to the bleak imaginations of others at such young ages, but she also didn’t want us to become victims to the masked monsters of the world. I believe she felt that letting in those interpretations of the dark would somehow enlighten us.
She did feel badly about it at times, especially if one of us had a nightmare. After a while I stopped telling her about the evils in my sleeping world. I didn’t like making her feel guilty, plus I was never quite able to articulate how fascinating those nightmare became.
I happen to be one of those snooty fellows who have a great deal of love of those strange things that linger in shadow. This isn’t a fascination with monsters or Satanism, as much as it is a curiosity about what they symbolize and what it is about those elements that make us so anxious.
This is not a general look at horror, but a specific kind of suspense related genre, the Dark Fantastic. Dark Fantasy has a vague yet appropriate definition, but for the intent of this blog let’s define the Dark Fantastic as a genre of horror fantasy that focuses on the dark (and often ironic) aspects of the human psyche. What I hope to do is come up with a series of works (film, literature, music etc.) along with some of the creators of work that center on the Dark Fantastic.
Overall, my goal is to dig into the collected human experience about what it is about ourselves that makes us feel frightened, and yet so intrigued.