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Beast Mode: Metal’s Evolution From Caveman To Cobalt

Michael Nelson | March 3, 2016 - 11:40 am

Stereogum is premiering a new Cobalt song today, called “Final Will,” from the band’s upcoming fourth album, Slow Forever. Listen to it at the bottom of this essay.

This is the key to metal — the secret to getting it, if you don’t already get it: Metal taps directly into our lizard brain. The limbic cortex. The ancient, urgent thing beneath consciousness and emotion and rational, reasoned thought. The instinct that kicks in when someone taps us on the shoulder from behind. That awful sensation that overloads our senses when we think maybe we’re being followed on a dark street or sized up in a subway car. Fight or flight. Fear or aggression. Kill or be killed. There are other types of music that are purely (or primarily) physical, that engage the body with total disregard for the intellect — dub, ambient, Scandinavian pop, anything that might be termed “dance music” — but none that dive so directly to our evolutionary core. This is because metal is not itself purely (or primarily) physical music at all: Metal attacks the amygdala; it stimulates the place where the body and brain are inextricably one.

That’s the source of metal’s stubborn and fascinating vitality, its timeless appeal, but also the reason why the genre is so often at odds with our technologically, politically, and intellectually advanced culture. Everyone recognizes and accepts that metal is inherently animalistic music, but some people want metal to be a dog: obedient, loving, loyal. Metal is not a dog, though; it’s a cat. You can try to train it, and every now and then its behavior might actually fall in line with your most optimistic vision for its place in your life, but it will never actually obey you. You will love it with all your heart, but it will never love you back. It will use you for warmth and sustenance — and man, that can feel a whole lot like love, I know — but it will scratch the fuck out of your couch, and it will eventually, inevitably, cut you up pretty bad, too. You get a cat, you’re gonna bleed sometimes. (Is it a coincidence that so many metal singers employ vocal styles that resemble a cat’s hiss or a lion’s roar? Is it a coincidence that metalheads love cats so much?)

You ever see what happens when two cats, unexpectedly, wind up in the same yard with one another? It’s nothing but claws, fangs, wild eyes, arched backs, tensed muscles, and horrifying noises. It’s a display of pure territorial aggression. That’s the flight-or-flight shit. That’s metal. It can’t be tamed, and if it could be tamed, it wouldn’t be metal anymore. It wouldn’t be a cat anymore. It would be a roommate. Now, if your roommate treated you the way your cat treats you? Man, you would not be having it. And that’s where metal has a tendency to run into some real problems. People want the music to trigger those little floods in their own limbic cortices, but nobody wants some lizard-brained asshole ruining their furniture or randomly brutalizing themselves and their friends. The lizard brain is a vestige of our caveman origins, and metal is caveman music (is it a coincidence that so many metal singers employ vocal styles that resemble a caveman’s grunt?), but cavemen have no place on Twitter, and caveman behavior has no place in the civilized world. Thank God! This is the very definition of progress. Neanderthals became extinct some 40,000 years ago, and they evolved into the psychologically complex, socially refined, morally inconsistent, multitude-containing people we interact with on Facebook or in the supermarket every day.

Still, that caveman shit is in our DNA. It’s a part of us, whether we like it or not. I often wonder how far back any of us can trace our respective family trees before identifying the most recent killer among our own ancestors. Our grandparents may have been those sweet, gentle people in Brooklyn, but their grandparents? Their grandparents’ grandparents? They weren’t all kindly shoe cobblers and caring midwives; we didn’t get to where we are today on charm alone. Somebody, somewhere in the chain, had to fight somebody else for food or shelter or land or safety. And that somebody else? They died. The ones who made it? That’s your bloodline. You descended from killers.

Metal stokes that deeply embedded instinct, brings it to the surface, allows us to feel those primal urges without forcing us to participate in The Hunger Games. And very often, the music’s practitioners are totally unaware of what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. They’re unknowingly walking a very fine line. Metal that is too self-conscious or self-aware ceases to be metal. This is why so many people summarily reject Liturgy: because they treat metal as a socio-academic anthropological case study to be clinically analyzed, deconstructed, and re-contextualized as a statement about metal. And you can fuck right off with that. Of course, you can’t just walk out on a stage cloaked in bison fur, squat around a small fire, and bang rocks together for 45 minutes. That’s sure as hell not metal either. This is a strain of popular music, first and foremost, and it requires craft, skill, discipline, and structure. These are artists with (relatively) contemporary sensibilities who have chosen to work in a medium that must channel something primal. It’s not easy! And like I said, it’s a fine line that must be walked almost without actual awareness on the part of the artist, which often manifests in some pretty weird messaging. Think about how many metal bands employ egregious lyrical themes: horror-movie tropes; Lovecraftian nightmare imagery; Lord Of The Rings fan fic; the glorification of war, or sickness, or squalor, or torture, or necrophilia; and of course SATAN.

Not to get all Jungian on you over here, but: These are metal’s ur-texts and archetypes, standing in for the roles played by wolves and witches in European fairy tales, and they similarly serve as collective-unconscious metaphors. Why? Because that’s how we recreationally activate our lizard brain in a civilized world. We scare the shit out of ourselves. We try to scare the shit out of others. Buried beneath all its many other layers, metal is a tool of power and intimidation, just like the ones your cat is employing when she sees a raccoon on the other side of the window, when she starts hysterically yowling and baring her fangs. Her fight-or-flight instinct has kicked in, and she’s putting on a display of ferocity in the hopes of scaring that raccoon into leaving her territory. She doesn’t know what she’s doing, though; it’s just what comes naturally in that moment. Metal bands will often justify their lyrical choices by citing artistic tradition, or inner turmoil, or a commitment to exploring the darkest elements of the human condition, or claiming to be dues-paying members of the Order Of Nine Angles. And, I mean, not to conflate my amateur Jungianism with some amateur Freudianism, but sure: That’s almost definitely what they think they’re doing. But that’s not what they’re doing. They’re trying to scare you by singing about the things that scare them.

It doesn’t always work; in fact, it probably falls short more often than not. But when it does work? Goddamn, man, there’s not a single feeling in this world that compares. It’s pretty indescribable, because it’s both impossibly complex and prehistorically innate. The best way to illustrate it is to consider some of the songs that most successfully achieve that goal, to recognize the invisible link between those songs’ strangely performative lyrics and the gut-level feelings they evoke in the listener: “Angel Of Death,” for instance, or “Run To The Hills.” If you need something more concrete, try this thought exercise: Compare/contrast Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War” with Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” Both songs cover the same exact lyrical territory; both are viciously critical of the the military industrial complex that trains and deploys young people to act as killing machines in the ostensible defense of an ideology, and profits from the slaughter and sacrifice of real human beings. Dylan’s song, on the one hand, is an argument, blending cold hard reason with impassioned polemical spirit to engage the intellect; it’s an anti-war demonstration in musical form. “War Pigs,” on the other hand? I wouldn’t even classify that thing as a protest song. But when I listen to it, I feel like I’m in a muddy trench in a country that is not my home, filthy and sweaty and scared, explosives detonating someplace in the distance, someplace just out view but well within earshot.

And for my money, the Colorado duo Cobalt assault and ignite the lizard brain with more ferocity than any other band in music today. Over the course of their three (soon to be four) full-length albums — 2005’s War Metal, 2007’s Eater Of Birds, 2009’s Gin, and the forthcoming Slow Forever — they’ve eliminated the unintentional metaphors and ostensible meanings and narrative devices that most metal bands employ as a matter of course, stripping away artifice and facade to produce music that is as spare as bone, as sharp as teeth, as naked as the day you were born.

Surely some debt here is owed to Ernest Hemingway, one of Cobalt’s foundational influences and spirit guides, a writer whose best-known novels are set against stark, almost Biblical backdrops: battlefields in Italy, bullfighting rings in Spain, the plains of the Serengeti, a small fishing boat in the Gulf Stream. Hemingway preached and practiced ruthless self-editing; his own writing felt as hard and smooth as marble. And he worked like a sculptor, too — slowly, meticulously, and mercilessly chipping away at a giant rock, finally delivering something beautiful and perfect, human-sized, something that had the memory of the earth itself, but whose appearance only hinted at its essence. Hemingway’s game-changing approach to writing was called the “Iceberg Theory” (as in “the tip of the iceberg”) or the “Theory Of Omission.” As he described it in his memoirs: “I omitted the real end [of 1923 story “Out Of Season”] which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything … and the omitted part would strengthen the story.”

Cobalt’s admiration for Papa is no secret — Gin was dedicated to Hemingway, and its cover art features a photograph of the author as a young man — and they pare down language with a similar commitment to brutal, evocative minimalism. (Is it a coincidence that Hemingway loved cats?) But there’s no narrative arc to their songs; these aren’t stories so much as subconscious visions put to words. They omit nearly everything beyond grunted utterances and stray, surreal details, and in doing so, prove Hemingway’s theory beyond a doubt: Cobalt’s songs aren’t just strong, they’re practically indestructible. At points, the band altogether abandons language as we know it, using made-up words to convey their intent. Such is the case with Cobalt’s two best songs: “Ulcerism” from Eater Of Birds and “Arsonry” from Gin. Those titles? Those aren’t real words, but they’re derived from real words related to some pretty elemental shit: searing stomach pain and fire, respectively.

As such, Cobalt rely on the songs’ instrumental components to set the scenes: to show the battlefields and bullfighting rings rather than telling us about them; to give tension and weight to the scattered lyrical shards; to stand in for everything that’s been omitted; to be, in fact, the bottom of the iceberg. Accomplishing this requires a musician capable of brilliance. Fortunately, Cobalt have one of those.

Cobalt are a duo, and like nearly every duo from Wham! to the White Stripes, there’s one member who does most of the heavy lifting and one whose role is a bit more nebulous. Cobalt’s Daryl Hall figure is multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder, who’s responsible for just about every single thing you hear in every single Cobalt song besides the vocals (and he even sings occasionally, too; when you hear a clean melodic vocal such as the one on Gin track “Dry Body,” that’s Wunder; he’s also got another project called Man’s Gin, for which he serves as lead vocalist). With Cobalt, Wunder takes a relatively genre-agnostic approach that incorporates crust punk, blackened death metal, post-rock, prog, drone, folk music and field recordings of numerous cultural origins, and whatever else might serve to summon the paleo-nightmare images he’s projecting into the world. He’s especially good at this because his focus is primarily trained on writing great songs rather than producing some shapeless atmosphere or ambience. He builds and releases tension with high-impact rhythmic shifts, aural textures so bold they’re almost tactile, and melodic bursts that are as bracing and addictive as cocaine. Wunder once told me that Cobalt’s songwriting process starts with the drum patterns, and from there, he builds everything else. That’s kinda mind-boggling to me, but it makes sense, too, right? Rhythm is the base element of human music — those cavemen were banging rocks together long before they ever added melody.

Wunder doesn’t seem like much of a troglodyte, though. I’ve been doing this long enough to know not to vouch for anyone, but I’ve gotta offer a tiny bit of character-witness testimony here: I’ve talked to the guy a number of times, including once for this extensive 2012 interview, and to me, he’s always come across as a kind, thoughtful, humane individual. The dudes with whom he’s worked, though — who give balance to Cobalt’s duality — seem to operate primarily on society’s lawless fringes.

For many years, Wunder’s partner in Cobalt was a guy he’d known since childhood, a guy named Phil McSorley. McSorley didn’t quite look the part of the black metal heathen, but he lived it: In 2005, he joined the Army, because till that point, he said, he’d “felt like [he] was living a coward’s life.” Over time, he was promoted to staff sergeant and did two deployments as a Cavalry Scout in Baghdad, where he “patrolled hostile areas, cleared areas and routes of IEDs, and in general kicked the shit out of the enemy.” He opened one interview by saying, “Don’t ask me to talk about the people I’ve killed.” McSorley’s life experience lent a great deal of rare authenticity to Cobalt’s furious, fire-hot music, but his day job required him to adopt a moral code entirely distinct from the one followed by most non-military Americans. “I’m too high-strung for the civilian world now,” he said in 2010. “I think before I joined the Army I was okay, but I don’t think I could make it out there now because the way that the civilian world works bothers me too much, and I couldn’t see myself as a part of that anymore.” In December 2014, he said a bunch of terrible, terrifying stuff on Facebook, which included “bashing people because of their sexual identification and wishing death on them.” A few days later, Wunder announced that he and McSorley had parted ways — saying McSorley’s “recent activities have made it impossible for the two of us to continue on a creative path” — and Cobalt had begun the search for a new vocalist with whom to complete the already-half-a-decade-in-the-making Slow Forever.

In June 2015, that new vocalist was revealed to be Charlie Fell, who’d been kicked out of his own band, Lord Mantis, only three months earlier. By all accounts, McSorley and Fell are nothing alike — McSorley is now a drill sergeant; Fell, on the other hand, describes himself as being a “pretty sensitive, goofy” guy — but both men see themselves and the world around them in animalistic terms. McSorley frequently refers to himself as a lion, and to members of consumerist American society as “parrots in a pet store” or “ants in a kicked pile.” Fell, on the other hand, once said, “I tend to watch people a lot, and in [doing] that, I feel pretty detached from being human. It’s like being in a monkey cage, you start seeing people for the animals they are.” When Fell said that, he was discussing the cover art from Lord Mantis’ 2014 LP, Death Mask, which depicted what appeared to be a trans woman being tortured. The artwork was (justifiably!) met with outrage, but Fell (weirdly!) countered assertions that it was intended to be hateful or transphobic with an anecdote from his own life: a story about the time he got head from a trans woman with whom he was smoking crack while also high on LSD in an SUV outside a goth club in Chicago — an experience that gave him “new perspective on the animal kingdom.” Said Fell of the encounter and his subsequent revelation: “It’s blurred. I think everybody’s half gay when you remove the shame.”

Whether you find this stuff troubling, embarrassing, or refreshingly honest depends on your worldview (I personally find it deeply unnerving, if that means anything to you), but it’s probably safe to say these cats would not make for great roommates. They’ve contributed to some great albums, though: McSorley with Cobalt; Fell with Lord Mantis; and now, Fell with Cobalt, too — because Slow Forever is a really great album. You’d think that replacing an actual drill sergeant with a guy who begins his story by saying he was “on a shit ton of acid, as usual” would result in a sloppier sound, but the opposite thing occurred here: Slow Forever is notably disciplined and absolutely pristine in comparison even to the McSorley-era Cobalt’s most evolved work. That’s the first big difference you’ll notice, listening to both side-by-side. The second big difference you’ll notice is the absence of blast beats on Slow Forever — true to the album’s title, Cobalt have abandoned the hyper-speed elements that once gave their music a black metal edge. But even with that edge gone, this stuff is still sharp as a band-saw blade. And even though it doesn’t blast, it still feels like it’s moving pretty fast, in part due to the hypnotic complexity of Wunder’s drum work. Fell, meanwhile, isn’t just an adequate replacement for McSorley; he brings his own weirdness to the music — his own demons, his own exhibitionistic nature, his own unhinged style — elevating everything here to the point of red-sighted insanity, or burning it all to the ground.

He’s been given a hell of a structure to immolate. Wunder’s songs feel like they’ve been baking for decades in the Mojave, or growing like an ash tree on a steep slope in the Blue Mountains. They feel like products of geological patience, and they are wild. Their primitive nature is laid bare in their titles: “Animal Law”; “Beast Whip”; “King Rust”; “Elephant Graveyard”; “Breath.” The album opens with a song called “Hunt The Buffalo,” whose chorus supports my broader thesis even as it conflicts with a secondary point I made above, as Fell screams, “I am not a man/ I am just a dog.”

So … not a cat, then. But not actually a dog either, you know? He’s a 21st century human being making music in a studio, surrounded by highly advanced tools and machines, just as you are a 21st century human being on the other end of the line, listening to music on a device that has more power than NASA did when they first sent a man to the moon. But tell me this music doesn’t make you feel like you’re a dog — or a cat, or an owl, or a velociraptor, or whatever. Not a pet, but an animal unbound: chasing something that’s trying to get away, sinking your teeth into something warm and wet. When our lizard brain takes over, it’s a basic survival instinct, just as it has been for endless eons and countless species. It’s a reminder that we’re alive and we want to stay alive. That’s what’s happening. And that’s the key to metal, too; the secret. Listen to this. Feel life. Live.

Slow Forever is out 3/18 via Profound Lore.

Tags: Cobalt