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Music

The Soft Pink Truth: Why Do the Heathen Rage?

Judged by concept alone, Drew Daniel has made one of 2014's most innovative releases.


The Soft Pink Truth

Why Do the Heathen Rage?

Label: Thrill Jockey
US Release Date: 2014-06-17
UK Release Date: 2014-06-16
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If you think [Why Do the Heathen Rage?] sucks, make your case. But don’t tell me that I’m not a real fan, or that I don’t have the right to touch the sacred kvlt heritage. After all: What does lip service to being Satanic amount to if you aren’t down for sacrilege?

-- Drew Daniel, in an interview with Adrien Begrand for Decibel

In 2011, New York City label Thrill Jockey released Aesthethica, an album of “Transcendental Black Metal” by the Brooklyn band Liturgy. Amidst the blastbeats and shrill screams by frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Aesthethica has moments of oddity that made it a controversial release at its time. Metal is a key undercurrent of the album, but it didn’t stop the group from throwing minimalist experimentation (“Generation”), video game synths (“Helix Skull”), an religious chants (“Glass Earth”) into the mix. Liturgy’s tastes are far from homogenous, which is one of the many reasons why Aesthethica remains a compelling work of experimental music.

What is more bizarre about the record, however, is the manifesto that will forever be associated with it, Hunt-Hendrix’s “Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism”. The essay, essentially a hodgepodge of Hegelian and post-Hegelian aesthetic philosophy (particularly the works of Friedrich Nietzsche), remains even to those who have read the document a bit of an oddity. Three years after Aesthethica, it doesn’t feel as if any movement like the one Hunt-Hendrix outlines has come to fruition. In retrospect, its staying power comes more from its provocation than its philosophical dictates. Nevertheless, in attempting to meld a particular philosophical ideal with an eclectic sonic, Liturgy caused a big splash in 2011, one that has not been replicated—until now.

The Soft Pink Truth is the name Drew Daniel (of Matmos fame) takes when recording experimental electronic music. Most memorably, with 2004’s Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth?, he spent a whole album covering hardcore punk tracks from the ‘70s and ‘80s, giving a jarring, defamiliarizing take on tunes from artists like Angry Samoans and Minor Threat. Ten years later, on the same Thrill Jockey label that caused a veritable frenzy in the metal scene but three years ago, Daniel has recorded a collection of covers of classic black metal tunes, pulling tracks from the discographies of Darkthrone, Beherit, and Mayhem. Entitled Why Do the Heathen Rage?, the record takes tracks from some of the darkest corners of the black metal world and transforms them into bizarrely catchy electronic covers. The notion of doing “danceable black metal” in the abstract is enough to send a legion of “kvlt” devotees with closets full of Burzum t-shirts to online forums the world over; in execution, it’s every bit as daring as it sounds. All Daniel had to do was conceptualize Why Do the Heathen Rage? and he would have already made one of 2014’s most innovative releases. But lo and behold, he went and made it, and the results—already the subject of numerous online debates—are invigorating.

Daniel’s aim with Why Do the Heathen Rage? is far from merely turning the kvlt into club bumpers, though at first pass that may seem the case. No matter how obvious Daniel’s creative touch is with these songs, there’s an inherent humor to hearing lyrics like “Black is the night, metal we fight!” over glitchy electronics. Some of the electronics on this record sound similar to the ones Flight of the Conchords used on their quirky comedy albums. For all of the serious points this LP makes, it's also a goofy and wildly fun. Fans of metal may find Why Do the Heathen Rage's instrumentation to be too silly to take seriously, but here Daniel is making an important point. The notion that there is no comedy to be found in a genre wherein its members and fans dress in corpse paint and resurrect ancient pagan myths all the while playing metal riffs is, on its face, a bit off. (Some clever YouTube videos provide evidence for this.) The overseriousness of many black metal artists—see anything Burzum has done in recent years—undercuts the ethos that bands in the genre so often espouse: irreverence. The degree to which black metal artists and fans overreact negatively to records like Aesthethica or Deafheaven’s much-hyped Sunbather illustrates that out of irreverence can come the same degree of reverence that the genre was initially fighting against, namely traditional religions like Christianity. In response to this black metal fundamentalism, Daniel takes on the role of the merry prankster, one who both loves the music he is paying homage to but also wishes to see some of its longstanding flaws change.

Daniel couldn’t have picked a more attention-grabbing way to make his point. After opening with the aptly titled “Invocation for Strength", wherein Daniel is joined by Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) in reading a “Radical Faery Poem” that sets the philosophical tone for the rest of the album. After this, Daniel never holds back, driving into a catchy cover of Venom’s “Black Metal”. His take on Sargeist's "Satanic Black Devotion" begins with a clean guitar intro not unlike the kind one would find on a melodic doom record, but it is not long before the guitar is cut off and replaced by ominous synths and the screams of Locrian's Terence Hannum. The Euro house-indebted "Let There Be Ebola Frost" even adds a brief moment of emotional calm amidst the thudding and scraping electronics that make up most of Why Do the Heathen Rage?.

Musically, Daniel is on to something unique here; the metal world has never seen something so off-kilter as this. However, it's in furthering an aesthetic and philosophical agenda where Daniel makes some serious steps forward. In his Decibel interview, he says that he is not interested "in being a sacred cow to politically sympathetic critics just because I’m a fag; being gay is not an achievement in 2014, it’s just a fact about who I am." Sexuality is but one of the many reasons that motivated Daniel to take on this cover project, for black metal's history is littered with heinous instances of homophobia, anti-Semitism, Nazism and other related racist nationalisms, church burnings, and murder. Why Do the Heathen Rage comes with a disclaimer:

Aesthetics and Politics are neither equivalent nor separable. Black metal fandom all too often entails a tacit endorsement or strategic looking-the-other-way with regards to the racist, anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic bullshit politics that (still) pervade the scene, on behalf of either escapist fantasy talk, shaky invocations of art as a crypto-religious path to transcendence, or -- the oldest cop out in the book -- the quietist declaration that “I just like how it sounds.” Just as blasphemy both affirms and assaults the sacred powers it invokes and inverts, so too this record celebrates black metal and offers queer critique / mockery / profanation of its ideological morass in equal measure.

One of the consequences of Daniel's arrangements of these songs is that the lyrics, which are often obfuscated by black metal's notoriously piercing screams, are almost always discernible. Daniel thus both underscores the suppressed comedic features of black metal and simultaneously lays out the philosophical content of its lyrics out in the open.

Though Daniel's critics might think this an act of profaning, Why Do the Heathen Rage? proves the opposite. Good comedy and satire always comes from a place of respect and admiration. Both try to offer directives for social change; they do not hold that everything is merely a joke and can be done away with. When talking with Brandon Stosuy of Pitchfork, Daniel concedes, "It's not like art is only ever a symptom of politics. So while they're always connected, they're never the same."

The conjoined nature of aesthetics and politics is one that Why Do the Heathen Rage? stresses above all else. Hunt-Hendrix may not have caused a scene change with his attempt to bring the Hegelian dialectic into the metal realm, but if there's any philosophical argument that should be taken seriously, it's Daniel's. Not only does he make a point that fans, critics, and artists in the metal realm often brush aside, but he's made a fine collection of danceable and inventive songs, to boot. If the unity of philosophy and performance was Daniel's goal, then by most margins he has succeeded with aplomb. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Daniel's philosophy, the one thing he cannot be accused of is being insincere. Daniel lives by his music and his ideas, without any arbitrary distinctions between the two. If nothing else, Why Do the Heathen Rage? is massively refreshing for that reason.

8

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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