Washington, D.C.‘s Dead Meadow has already attracted an inordinate amount of attention, probably because they look like Weezer and allegedly aspire to sound like Black Sabbath (though they are more like Iron Butterfly). This incongruity likely promotes speculation about what statement they are trying to make by playing stoner metal without having sleeves of tattoos or cringe-inducing piercings. One might be tempted to declare that they are democratizing the genre, or revealing that the music transcends the appearance of the performers.
But could it be that they are simply cannibalizing a subculture without committing to the fashion codes that would mark them as lifers in the realm of the outcasts? The message would be that hipsters can co-opt anything they choose, and, by doing so, win the eager applause of their like-minded peers in the music press. One might also assume that some intellectual trappings must govern their numbing, relentless repetitiveness, since it stands to reason that anything so initially repellant must be interpreted in terms of goals more elevated than the usual providing of pleasure.
However, it’s hard to shake the nagging suspicion that this must have been a very simple album to write: all that’s required is a couple of guitar pedals and more than a few gravity bongs, and a willingness to let the tape roll. Adopting the strategies of ‘60s San Francisco acid-rock bands Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead (their cover art, with its collage style and ersatz-psychedelic design motifs, suggests the connection as well), Dead Meadow makes songs that aren’t so much composed as they are discovered—the random oozing sounds, undulating amorphously and then seeping from the amps like lava, blend organically, their volume and density emphasizing the point that such sounds can’t be under the controlling, shaping restraints of their creator. This, then, would be the pretense behind it, and the reward for listeners comes through surrendering to the massiveness rather than searching within it for orchestrated details.
Aside from two short interludes (“Me and the Devil Blues” and “She’s Mine”), all the songs are prog rock epics that don’t actually progress. Some have acoustic guitars pushed prominently to the front of the mix, defeating their usual gentleness; most have meandering “solos” that don’t seem to have any structure at all, but are instead a squall of croaking notes. The tempos are all turgid, with a molasses-like thickness seeming to weigh them down and prevent them from developing momentum. Beyond that,Shivering King and Others consists of plodding, wah-wah saturated dirges that thump along like a post-ironic Melvins, while featuring the most muddied and miserable whine heard anywhere outside a Jandek record. Indeed, the albums of Jandek’s crazed electric period, highlighted by the psychopathic Interstellar Discussion and Telegraph Melts, might be considered an influence for “Good Moanin’” and “Heaven”, if it weren’t so unlikely that Dead Meadow have actually heard them.
Like the tuneless riffing, the bleating vocals seem designed to alienate and obfuscate, making for challenging listening that prevents one from comfortably dismissing their achievement through lackadaisical enjoyment. The lyrics, mostly indecipherable but helpfully reprinted in the CD booklet, deal with cosmic themes, exploring the unfathomable mysteries of life and nature. “I don’t know but I believe in the endless surging of the sea” (from “I Love You Too”), “A healthy baby born couldn’t stop crying / A man that died softly smiling” (from “Everything’s Going On”), “The light never goes dim, It’s the state we’re in / We’ll sink into the sea, just you and me” (from “Raise the Sails”)—these give an indication of their mystical drift, which entirely suits the incomprehensible hugeness of their sound.
This aesthetic—which privileges size, pain, complexity, obscurity, volume, and the infinite implied by the uniform over pleasure, proportion, smoothness, diminution, and elegance—has its roots in the 18th century fascination with “the sublime” rather than merely “beautiful.” The involuntary passions and terrors inspired by things sublime (a mountain, a ruined castle) were held to be more artistically significant than the dainty, decorous responses to things beautiful (a flower, a chaste woman), as sublime objects turned one’s attentions to God’s majesty, death’s inevitability, and one’s own surprising insignificance in the grand scheme of things. By demonstrating an interest in the sublime, an 18th century artist’s work took on an uncontestable dignity in a time when growing commercialization made more and more art generic, trivial, and disposable. Perhaps the same can be said of Dead Meadow’s interest now.