Music collapsed into a kind of vapid singularity the day Selena Gomez sang “I love you like a love song.” A song so lazy that it found the singer shunting off all the hard work of songwriting by using an entire genre of music to stand in for her emotions, it marked the tying off of a self-referential loop begun sometime in prehistory. Absurd, yes, but only logical: the fact is that music, especially popular music, has long dealt with simplifying emotions and emotional expression in order to connect with as broad a range of listeners as possible.
It is, quite literally, the reason that music is generic, limited in terms of lyrical, thematic and musical content. How many millions of cut-rate punks rely on solely speed, volume and snotty vocals and a dashed-off jeer to convey the performers’ rebellious anger? Every country-pop band without an ounce of real salt doesn’t mind bending guitar strings ‘till they break or stuffing a false twang in their singer’s mouth if it means evoking a feeling of rural simplicity and summoning up the specter of nostalgia that crouches like a spider atop our collective cultural memories. It’s exactly the kind of pandering that the sentimental hack might describe as sympathy or that pretentious would-be artist might explain away as adherence to tradition but which speaks more broadly to an honest emotional dearth. A generation of artists raised on work that can talk of anything so nuanced as emotions only in monosyllables and generalities is likely to produce work of similarly inhibited scope.
Even metal, a genre which has long made a show of detesting the superficial, the ethos of which has long been that there’s something much darker, much more gruesome and complex than the simple pleasures offered by the easy connections afforded by pop, has succumbed. There’s plenty of lip-service paid to this distinction still, but the truth is undeniable: most metal bands rely on the guttural cries of their singer, the ceaseless pound of the drums, the shred of the guitar and the vaguely demonic iconography and language to sell a one-size-fits-all version of anger. The music, turned too loud, begins to sound like static and the emotions, too broadly painted, are colorless and without texture. Without texture, nuance is impossible. Without nuance, significant connection is impossible. And without the risk of forming that significant connection with music there is no reason to listen. For all of its character modern “metal” might as rightly be labeled “muzack”.
That Thou and the Body’s You, Whom I Have Always Hated could have emerged in this context is something of a minor miracle, that it is so original and honest and sounds so perfect a major one. Neither band has ever shied away from confrontational and disturbing sounds – and little is more disturbing than the wails of the Body’s Chip King – and both have a reputation for emphasizing wrath, that great biblical emotion that speaks to existential offense endured and internalized, over simple rage, but never before has that wrath sounded so pained as it does here. No instrument is wasted, none relegated to the predictable rolls that years of lazy songwriting have trained the ears to pick up. Bryan Funck’s mongrel growl and King’s aforementioned shrieks stand center, yes, and there’s no denying that this is a guitar heavy album, but the drums, the bass and all effects are given much more to do than add texture. Sometimes, yes, they’re relegated to paint the kind of sonic scene that the Body have long been masters of: “Beyond the Realms of Dream” begins with a tribal tattoo that builds to something infernal, only setting the scene so that Funck might emerge, Satanic, to take his rightful place at the head of this demonic march.
Other times the dynamic is the opposite: though the percussion begins “Her Strongholds Unvanquished” with a machine-gun staccato, these drums and bass are not merely preparing the way for Funck’s yawp. They instead, with their futile and infuriated repetition, inform it. One can guess long before those first lines are spat just what the tenor of his unintelligible scree will be. If in certain moments these collaborators succumb to their fury and lose control — when sounds begin to blend or the distortion reaches such a pitch that it seems to be shoveling the rest of the sounds down its stretching gullet — they never fail to rein it in. Even the painful middle drag of “Her Strongholds Unvanquishable” is redeemed by the last second rise-and-fade that follows.
Not because it offers respite. There’s not a light spot on the album nor a moment where the crush of it all lifts, not even for a second. Moments of relative peace are granted – most notable of them all the ambient and penultimate “He Returns to the Place of His Iniquity” – but never to relieve the listener. What they grant, what the finale of “Unvanquishable” grants, is a moment to prepare and to reflect. Like the still opening of “The Wheel Weaves As the Wheel Will”, like the last seconds of feedback and watery effects that close everything at the end of “Lurking Fear”, this distance is granted listeners only so that they might have time to take in exactly what has come or to prepare for what is next. The album is overwhelming – the emotions are not merely raw and real but also massive, commensurate with the kind of grudges that characterize myth.
What, exactly, the members of Thou and the Body are railing against or where this fury focuses is never clear. The brilliant appropriation of Nine-Inch Nail’s “Terrible Lie” hints that the root of these torments might be God (and this is something the biblical language and song titles that have characterized so much of both bands’ work bears out). But where Reznor’s version was characterized by a grimy and stylish sneering that seemed to undercut his plea that he still needed God, Thou and the Body sink so far down into the sense of abandonment that comes with this existential crisis that every note and word seems to crawl up from the bottom of the world. It’s almost unbearable to listen to: feedback and distortion aren’t mere effects here but the very instruments the song’s theme of self-loathing plays out by. King’s squeals, which until now seemed to provide only color, take on new significance. Now that they’re given form — “Terrible Lie!” he squeals ceaselessly throughout the song – the reason for their ubiquity becomes apparent. As does the music’s confrontational quality. It’s all of a defense. To stop any of it for a moment would mean leaving a vacuum into which would creep the reality of every shocking horror the rest of the album neither explores nor considers but attacks. This is desperate music made by desperate people who seem to know how to stave off the horrors of the world by railing against them with complete violence.
You, Whom I Have Always Hated is a monolithic album, so massive and so black and often so much of a piece that to try to take it in at a glance or to distinguish certain elements seems either imposing or impossible. It’s as mysterious and often so severe that to listen for even another second becomes a kind of chore. There’s sense enough of pacing that it doesn’t feel haphazard but it can often feel sadistic. It’s as difficult as black metal gets, often so difficult that the ”you” of the title seems leveled at the listener as much as at the rest of the world, but it’s also as perfect as black metal gets and the logical end goal of everything the Body and Thou have been working towards, separately and together, since they began. If Funck’s claim that “life has meaning… pain has meaning!’ seems to contradict the thrust of the album, understand that no album this great could be made without a comparable level of pain.