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Thursday, October 6, 2011

The loving songs of hate - Boyd Rice's 'Music, Martinis and Misanthropy'.

There is a dark side to everything. We all know that. And most of us are at some stage or another fascinated by it, and at some stage or another we stare into it and take a sort of reassuring relief when we see how horrifying it is. It somehow restores our faith in the established order of things – good is good and bad is bad.

But what is much more unsettling is when we stare into that abyss and find a comfort, a peace, an embrace, in there – a sense, even, of coming home.

This is the side of darkness that Boyd Rice shows us in his classic, and very, very unsettling 1990 album, Music, Martinis and Misanthropy. It is a piece of terrifying musical blackness – the sort that presents you with hate, clothed in soft velvet, its ice-cold arms stretched out to enfold you. Here hell really has frozen over.

The music itself is a richly textured neo-folk, with lush guitars, opulent keyboards, and fertile electronic noise, all blending into a dark and alluring molasses of sound that, like quicksand, absorbs the nihilistic, hate-filled lyrics of Boyd Rice delivered, usually spoken, sometimes sung, without even a neutron of emotion. The effect is shattering, jarring, but irresistible.

This strangely evocative, deeply horrible, stage is set in the album’s opening ‘Invocation’, a grotesquely morbid cover of The Carpenters’ song of the same name. It’s a somehow fitting mirror – The Carpenters’ angst-filled lives clad in sunlight and roses, reflected here in songs of hate clad in a soft, Kashmir black.

Whether it’s the musings on killing all the weak and ugly people, to a gently strumming guitar and rich, comforting chords, as in ‘People’; or the haunted soprano vocals that sing, ethereal and lullaby-like, behind ‘Disney Land Can Wait’, where the fantasy funpark is a distant dream, and shooting all the shuffling soullessness of modern life with AK-47s and B-52s is the immediate mission; or whether it’s the ghostly toe-tapping rhythm of ‘An Eye for an Eye’; or the trippy, druggy, ditty of murder in ‘Down in the Willow Garden’; or the barren, deadpan, invitation to rape in ‘Tripped a Beauteous Maiden’, Music, Martinis and Misanthropy constantly draws us into everything we want to be repelled by.

This is not music you want to be left alone with for too long – and not just because it is so disturbing (and it is certainly that), but also because you just can’t trust it. And that means, when it takes you so totally into its embrace, you can no longer trust yourself either. Is the music trying to lure you into its lair of hate, or is it trying to warn you, arm you, against a world dressed in majesty but drowning in mediocrity?

Ultimately, at the end of its 50 minutes, Music, Martinis and Misanthropy leaves it for you to decide. It has made a big black bed for you, with soft silk sheets, but you’re the one who has to choose whether or not to lie in it. All that the music, in all its dark, lulling richness, has done is show you what a comforting, loving place hate can be.


  1. Well yes but. He'd be lost without an echo chamber, wouldn't he? Even that can make a flat, expressionless voice come alive.
    From your (impressive!) links to YouTube one can see that Boyd Rice has extensive associations with satanism and nazism and the latter's hate was/is anything but a 'comforting, warm place'. Organised hatred eventually expunges freedom of choice ('whether or not to lie in it')and when art seeks to legitimate organised hatred, it ends up undercutting the artistic diversity from which it emerged - see, e.g., the 'national-socialist realism' of Nazi Germany.

  2. Thanks for this Patrick. I deliberately avoided getting into commentary about Boyd Rice's own politics and beliefs because, from the research I was able to do, it seems very ambiguous. He apparently repudiated Nazism and racism, although he uses the imagery to some extent in his music. He certainy had friends who were Satanists and some involvement with some Satanist groups.

    These types of artists always raise for me (but never answer answer) the question of how far you can go in divorcing art from the artist. The supreme example of that, for me, is Wagner. He was such a horror of a person, anti-Semitic, racist, a rabid nationalist, and, viewed in that light it's hard not to see his work as hideous. But viewed in its own right, it can be understood and experienced in so many other ways. Is one right and the other wrong? Or are they both equally valid?

    Notwithstanding all of that, I certainly find Boyd Rice's music very disturbing - but really more because of those warm velvet textures behind the lyrics, than because of the person he might or might not have been.

    And yet probably it is inconsistent with everything I otherwise believe to think it possible that you can ever understand art without understanding who created it, and the conditions in which it was created.


  3. Yes - it's n easy slide from critique to prescription. Do we want to adopt an aesthetic position from which, to paraphrase John Howard, 'We will decide who will create art and the conditions in which they will do so'?
    I take your point about Wagner. I don't know enough about music ('musicality') and musical criticism to be able describe his MUSIC in terms of the conditions of its creation. Songs are easier because you can focus on the lyrics, which I did in my note about Boyd Rice. Music videos, of course, add a third element which either complements the music and/or lyrics or is (apparently) independent of them. I find some of Marilyn Manson's videos deeply disturbing in a quite different way to the disturbance of Boyd Rice.

  4. Yes. And given how unsettled I have been by the music and lyrics of Boyd Rice, I think I had better steer clear of Marilyn Manson's videos altogether. His album covers alone are enough to giv me nightmares!