Trevor Dunn was born in 1968 behind the Redwood Curtain and has been a professional musician since the age of 17. He is a founding member of the avant-rock band Mr. Bungle and continues to perform live with Tomahawk, Fantômas, John Zorn, Melvins Lite, Erik Friedlander and Endangered Blood. He also leads his own bands MadLove and Trio-Convulsant, writes film music and has written articles for Bass Guitar Magazine, Arcana and Spin.com. He can be heard on over 100 albums, ranging from pop to free improv.
I don’t remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Godflesh’s 1989 breakthrough Streetcleaner. But chances are it was in some parking lot at 2:00 a.m., as friends blasted it from the car stereo while other kids passed around a bong or a thermos full of Jack and Coke.
It may be my faulty memory — that was 25 years ago, after all — but there was so much that wasn’t as clean back then as it is today.
As I sit here listening to the new Godflesh album, I should confess that I’m barefoot, drinking hot chocolate and sitting on a clean leather couch. I spent the day at an exhibition by the late iconic video artist Nam June Paik, who struck me with his sense of humor and pioneering ideas. But I also recognize he was working in a certain social climate.
Gentrification has been around for a while now. The term became popular in the ’60s, although there are references to it in literature as early as the late 1800s. The ways we hang out are cleaner now, the ways we travel are cleaner and the ways we listen to and purchase music are cleaner. What I mean is that 25 years later we, as post-industrial Westerners, are more efficient, faster and more refined.
Perhaps we are less curious and audacious as well. Regardless of where anyone stands on this new Godflesh album, it can hardly be denied that this band has always offered one of the best musical representations of end-times. The title of the album is a reference to William Manchester’s book A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance — Portrait of an Age (1992), about collapse and rebirth in medieval times, and Godflesh deliver those dismal sentiments the way they always have.
Godflesh fans will love this album. It’s pretty much what you would expect, and that’s exactly what I both love and hate about it. Justin Broadrick, the band’s singer, guitarist and main creative force, has tuned down a bit since the ’80s. I think the eight-string guitar is sort of the essence of the gentrification of metal. Say what you will about gentrification, but it’s where we’re all headed in our hearts, regardless of whether we get there or not. Who doesn’t want more comfort? Who doesn’t want better coffee? Who doesn’t want industrial metal to be even more distorted and pitched even lower? It took us a while as metal-heads to get here, but it’s what we’ve always dreamt of. Sure, some underprivileged kid might not be able to afford a BTK 8JB, but he’ll tune down his Mexican Squire until that low E is flapping like a Canadian buckwheat soba noodle.
Aside from that tuning change, there’s nothing particularly new about this album. Perhaps Broadrick and bassist G.C. Green have honed their compositional skills. The songs carry themselves with purpose, and the overall shapes and forms of each song are more mature than before. The anger remains. The dissonance remains. All of this is good but, despite their very satisfying counterpoint, you won’t hear any rhythms or lyrical sentiments you haven’t heard before. Phrases like “useless,” “die now” and “you are a vulture” are classic and effective, but not innovative in this context.
But I’m most bothered by the goddamn drum machine. I think these guys should take a hint from Einstürzende Neubauten and replace that phony high-hat with an anvil or a brake drum. I would prefer a human capable of evoking industrial repetition and machinery behind some real instruments, be they drums or pieces of junked automobiles, rather than this very antiquated and enervating drum machine. I think this is the album’s biggest downfall, because it lessens the music’s impact and drags down the feel of industrialization that it’s forging. The language here is about fire, gluttony, madness and misanthropy. A box that sounds like it’s from the ’80s is trying to be part of that language at a time when there are so many more immediate and technologically terrifying instruments available.
It’s possible that this dated drum-machine color will appeal to the diehard fan. Let’s go back to the late ’80s for a moment. The year before Streetcleaner came out, Metallica had already announced their own artistic death with …And Justice for All, Voivod was getting weird and there was a whole lot of post-Reign in Blood Slayer knock-off crap out there. Headbangers needed something new and Steetcleaner provided it. And I do think that the drum machine was part of that soundtrack; the elegy for the death of metal (the double-bass drum set being its liver and intestines), which was not to rise from the grave for a few more years. I get it. That was a sound. And if nostalgia serves us correctly, that sound, which is here on this new album, will take us back.
I would prefer to see a little more progress. When I was speaking about cleanliness, I was speaking about disturbing, clinical intent. I’m not saying A World Lit Only by Fire doesn’t have that, but it could have really blown my head off with a gentrification (or to use less offensive terms, “artificial intelligence,” “robotics” or “nanotechnology”) more suitable to our handheld OS times of extreme digital disconnection. To translate that, I just mean that industrial music should convey that more-human-than-human desolation, whether with laptop electronics from this decade or some blacksmith work from a more barbaric, primal and blood-fueled time. (I mean, Duran Duran were from Birmingham, too.)
Still, I would buy this album. It makes me want to go back to my small hometown and smoke weed while talking shit about meth-heads, muscle-flexing jocks and racists. It makes me want to hang out and waste my hours being critical and hopeless. It makes me nostalgic for a dirtier time in the postmodern West.
I say, “nostalgic,” but that doesn’t really mean that I want to go back there.