Into the Void: John Darnielle on Sabbath, Extreme Metal, and Indie Rock

Some of the hardest things in the world are also very simple like for example a sword or even a very big rock…This is really why Black Sabbath is my favorite band. They are not trying to show off all the stuff they can do even though I am pretty sure they could be as complicated as they want to be. They just put all of their energy into this one riff and let it loose like an avalanche. Dunn-dunn, duh-duh-DUNN DUNN, dunn dunn-dunn. Fuck, I wish I was in your office listening to it with you right now. That would be the best therapy session and would actually make me feel good for once!

— Excerpt from John Darnielle’s Master of Reality

Having a fictional 15-year-old narrate the first half of his book about Black Sabbath’s classic 1971 album Master of Reality turned out to be an inspired decision on the part of John Darnielle. Eschewing the thoroughly researched critical dissection and analysis of seminal records that readers have come to expect from Continuum’s venerable 33 1/3 series, Darnielle, singer and songwriter for the much-loved band the Mountain Goats, cuts right to the chase in his short novel, the blunt, direct tone of his adolescent protagonist Roger Painter perfectly encapsulating the enduring appeal of metal’s great progenitors. It’s all about the Mighty Riff when it comes to Sabbath; everything else is secondary, and while one could easily make a case for at least half a dozen albums that deserve the 33 1/3 treatment, the riffs that define this particular album are, to echo young Roger’s sentiment, unfuckwithable.

“To me I guess the big dividing line is between the albums that people who love metal would consider essential and the ones that are more genuinely canonical,” explains Darnielle via email while on tour with his band. “So, like, you and I might say Volume 4 is a mindblowing step forward, but you wouldn’t consider a person rock-illiterate if they didn’t know ‘Wheels of Confusion’, unless you were being pretty hardcore exacting in your standards. To my mind there are two Black Sabbath albums that any well-rounded rock listener ought to have a passing familiarity with: Master of Reality and Paranoid.

“Now, of those two, Paranoid is the more iconic one to me,” he continues. “It’s got the title track and ‘Iron Man’ and freaking ‘War Pigs’, the whole nine yards. But Master of Reality is the one I heard second when I was a teenager, and the one that sort of opened the band up for me — where things started to sound a little more confusing, where the whole aesthetics of what Sabbath was about started to gel for me. And they weren’t always going to be about that particular aesthetic; I’d argue that it ended and moved in a different direction just one album later. But the quintessential Black Sabbath is for me the one you hear in ‘Children of the Grave’ and in the tone on Master of Reality.”

While 1970’s Black Sabbath placed unprecedented emphasis on the darker side of heavy, blues-based rock ‘n’ roll and the incendiary follow-up Paranoid was a creative leap of the quantum variety, Master of Reality had Sabbath refining its formula to absolute perfection: Ozzy Osbourne howls away maniacally in the unpretentious metal voice he’d build a 40-year career around, drummer Bill Ward adds frantic fills that sound like the musical equivalent of a drunkard falling down a flight of stairs (the timbales on “Children of the Grave” an inspired touch), Geezer Butler’s rapidly plucked bass tone thrums away with tectonic force, and Tony Iommi’s dense, sludgy, tuned-down riffs, starting with the unforgettable “Sweet Leaf” (credit must be given to producer Rodger Bain, who constructed this red-eyed, fuzzed-out monolith of a song), while wildly catchy from start to finish, had an immeasurable influence, predating stoner rock and doom metal by more than a decade. Comprised of six songs and two very short musical interludes, and clocking in at 34 minutes, it seems at first glance like a hastily-assembled third album, but so perfect, so monumental are those six tracks, that even at barely more than half an hour, this ranks as one of the most epic metal discs of all time.

Of course, Darnielle agrees heartily, his enthusiasm for the record contagious when asked to name his favorite track. “For me, just on the visceral play-this-at-my-funeral level of things, it’s between ‘Children of the Grave’ and ‘Into the Void’, and at that point the contest is between Bill Ward just killing it on ‘Children of the Grave’ vs. the insane, insane, insane tone and riff on ‘Into the Void’ — I just now started playing that one through my crappy laptop speakers and even that way it just sounds so glacial and massive. It’s certainly the more ‘doom’-y of the two — ‘Children’ is very much on the positive Master of Reality side, but ‘Into the Void’ has Ozzy sounding completely bummed-out, fried, hopeless — even though the song’s headed in a ‘there’s hope’ direction, it sounds like Ozzy isn’t buying it. And then there’s that middle section that sound like proto-hardcore…really really tough call.”

And what of “Solitude”, the massively underrated, shamelessly melodramatic, raga-like ballad inexplicably stuck in between the monumental “Lord of This World” and the towering closing cut “Into the Void”? “‘Solitude’ is completely the odd man out and is so bizarre,” says Darnielle. “I think that the long-held contention by the Sabbath camp that Ozzy sings ‘Solitude’ is, to be blunt, false. I don’t have any opinion about who actually is singing it but I don’t think it’s Ozzy. The rest of the song though, is so distinct — it’s like some doom Fairport Convention cough syrup and beer experiment — the guitar tone on that is this electric-folk feel that’s so unlike Sabbath in general, and the two-chord figure that’s dominant is even simpler than your average Sabbath riff. I think it’s a very, very strange song, both by itself and especially as a player on the Master of Reality team.”

Essential Extreme

Mar de Grises, Draining the Waterheart (Firebox)

Rating: 8

If you were looking for a potential successor to Opeth’s progressive metal throne, Chile might not have been the first locale you might have considered investigating, but the second album by Santiago natives Mar de Grises is one of 2008’s biggest revelations. By taking the epic, meandering songwriting of Opeth, the melancholic doom of early Katatonia, and the expansive sounds of Cult of Luna and Year of No Light and confidently creating something they can call its own, the quintet has already mastered the dynamic between massive, mournful riffs and moments of gut-wrenching beauty. The 11-minute “Kilómetros de Nada” moves deliberately and majestically from crushing passages to contemplative interludes and back again, climaxing with a heart-stopping coda, the adventurous “Wooden Woodpecker Conversion” slyly incorporates sequencing and drum machine, while “Liturgia: Convite y Prefiguración/ Purgatorio/ Diálogo Infierno” brings it all to a stunning, devastating climax. Doom just doesn’t get any better than this.

While Darnielle’s exploration of Master of Reality through the voice of his novel’s protagonist is perceptive and eloquent on its own, his book is also a genuinely affecting depiction of teen alienation during the mid-’80s. The setting of a psychiatric hospital in 1985 in the book’s first half is particularly fitting. That year, metal music and its teenaged fans were getting it from all sides. The problem of a high teen suicide rate was exacerbated by the oft-misread subject matter in heavy metal lyrics, grieving parents directing their anger towards the artists, and other parents wary of the albums their own kids were bringing home. Christian fundamentalists were in full gear, their condemnations of metal music and culture reaching a self-parodic level, while supposedly enlightened music critics were just as narrow-minded as the religious right, only on their part condemning the genre on an artistic level. And of course, the infamous Parents Resource Music Center (PRMC) even had Washington politicians involved in the fray. All the while, the more insular the pockets of young teens in North America became, power chords and bombastic vocals, either pumped through Marshall stacks or through Walkman headphones, served as healthy catharsis for kids everywhere.

“The movie River’s Edge sort of brushes up against the sort of lost-teen culture that I think has been totally written out of history, but that’s a movie — everything’s bound to come off all high-moralizing and so forth,” says Darnielle, who is fascinated by the early-’80s metal subculture that blossomed 25 years ago. “When in fact, the communities that formed around the outside/weird metal tape trading back then, those were loose-knit families whose needs weren’t getting met by the cultures within which they had to exist.”

As a psychiatric worker in the late ’80s, Darnielle witnessed that alienation firsthand, and his book draws from his experiences in the field. “In December of ’87 I started working in psych wards, and metal was still a big going concern among the people being held there,” he states. “The narrator in my book refers to the sorts of kids I was taking care of — the ones who were really really into whatever was going to shock their parents and give them that I’m-not-supposed-to-be-hearing-this groove, you know… But yeah — metal was a place young people went to feel like not everybody thought they were dumbasses, you know, where adults could look at them from a place of success and position and say, ‘The things you value have value, no matter what they are or how weird they seem to other people, and anybody who tells you otherwise is an asshole.’ Which is the great truth of metal, as far as I’m concerned.

“I worked in the psych biz for most of my adult life until the Mountain Goats took over,” he adds, “and much of my work life was devoted to children and adolescents, and it’s pretty impossible to describe just how heavy an impact that kind of work will have on you if you’ll only let it. The trick is in not getting jaded, in not succumbing to the punching-the-clock aspect of things: staying engaged, staying vulnerable, being able to understand that every kid you work with is his or her own story, all new, not the same story as the similar kid who just left last week. Trying to understand them instead of bringing some pre-configured understanding into how you deal with them. I don’t think you can really sustain that kind of attitude toward the work over an entire lifetime without going crazy, but I tried, and it left marks on me, so I kind tried to conjure up the spirit of those marks when I was writing.”

Anyone who sincerely enjoys both indie rock and extreme metal is used to reactions from friends who happen to be die-hard fans on either side of the fence like, “You listen to that?” Darnielle is especially familiar with that oft-misunderstood duality: on one hand, you’ve got John Darnielle the talented leader of perennial indie darlings the Mountain Goats, whose eloquent and clever lyrics have endeared him and his band to scenesters everywhere. On the other, there’s John Darnielle the metal fan, who regularly posts enthusiastically about extreme music either on message boards or his own blog, and has become well known to fellow metal fans through his ingenious, dryly hilarious “South Pole Dispatch” column that appears every month in Decibel magazine.

The relationship between indie fans and the metal community has always been an uneasy one, and bands that manage some form of crossover appeal into the indie realm — Mastodon, Boris, Jesu, or SunnO))) — are snidely given the “hipster” tag by those reluctant to share their favorite music with the non-hesher crowd. And who better to ask to comment on that divide between such seemingly disparate, but equally insular audiences than Darnielle, who knows both scenes all too well?

“I think lots of indie people have this notion, whether they care to cop to it or not, that there’s a sort of aesthetic hierarchy out there in the ether that applies across the spectrum — that really good music is made by smart people who can articulate what they meant to do, that good music is essentially what People Like Us would do if we had the chops,” he explains. “Put this up against metal, which in my opinion is best when it’s a little boneheaded — indulgent, unafraid to be stupid (not ‘cute at the party’ stupid or ‘makes for a good photo on my Flickr LOL my friends and I are t3h funny’ stupid, but ‘I bet I’m making you feel embarrassed, how does that FEEL, wallow in it pig’ stupid), drunk not in a clever way but in a that-dude’s-gonna-hurt-somebody way.”

He elaborates further, “I think the indie aesthetic is pretty invested in a very old, very tired idea about whether the creator and the audience are in agreement about what makes the music good. The indie audience wants to feel like the people on stage are their people. I think the metal audience is quite different, insofar as it’s composed of people who are less willfully outsiders and more genuinely outside — people who’re so used to being on the outside that they don’t give a shit whether anybody else in the room is feeling what they’re feeling. You see this at metal shows: one or two dudes off to the side air-guitaring wildly right on the edge of the pit, just not giving a shit. I think that level of individuation, of comfort with not fitting in, is something that indie audiences are uncomfortable with; I mean, look, I’m an indie dude, I wouldn’t say this shit if I didn’t love my people, right, but indie is a clique, not a style. Metal is more of an identity — the indie clique could become the art-scene clique overnight and nobody’d notice.”

That said, according to Darnielle, the voracious appetite for adventurous new music by the indie crowd is something the sometimes stubbornly insular metal fanbase should try to emulate more. “Indie people tend to be music fiends,” he says. “They want to hear everything, they hate feeling like they missed anything, they always want to have been there first. And this is a good quality — I think young indie people just wanna hear more indie, but it usually doesn’t take long before they can’t stand not knowing more about dub, and they don’t wanna get called a geek so they bone up on rap, and they notice all their friends know something about metal so they download the entire Southern Lord discography and then inside of three weeks they consider themselves OG metal experts — metal people, I’ve heard them say outright that they’re not particularly interested in other musics. Only then, with my indie dude sympathies, I think: how can you not be jealous of that kind of purity? It has a real appeal to it.”

As far as his own music goes, Darnielle is content to keep indie and metal separate, the Mountain Goats being his primary creative outlet, metal affording him an opportunity to be just a regular geek like the rest of us. After all, to let yourself fully embrace even the most over-the-top forms of music on a completely genuine, irony-free level, is rather liberating. “One thing I like about metal is really super-physical — it’s the peeling-off-your-skin feeling of listening to those first two Mercyful Fate records, it’s the whoomp of Pete Sandoval blasting away, the ‘fuck you I’m just gonna play punk rock’ feel of recent Darkthrone shit’,” he muses. “It’s the same appeal as drugs I think: the desire to get gone, to get blasted. But it’s also how cerebral it is, in a way — how it asks you to sort of insert yourself into a pretty literary sort of headspace if you’re going to pay attention at all, how it assumes you’ve already done some thinking about bunches of obscure bizarre pursuits — that ‘speaking to the initiates’ feel. And finally and maybe most importantly, I think shame is kind of a toxic thing, and the first thing that gets thrown out of the moving vehicle with metal is shame. Take power metal. Think those dudes feel even the slightest bit of shame that what they’re into is some hyper-masculine Robert E. Howard space fantasy shit? Fuck no. They just go for it. It’s refreshingly unselfconscious.”