Seeds of Death: The Body and Music About Suicide

Seeds of Death: The Body and Music About Suicide

Two songs came to mind immediately when I tried to think of songs that mention suicide. The first was “Suicide Note, Pt. 1” by Pantera. The second: Rowland S. Howard’s “Shivers.” Though each presents a severely depressed narrator, one is, for listeners like myself, sad, while the other is, as strange as this may sound, a little goofy. Guess which is which.

There are several reasons why the Pantera track, despite being about something grim and violent, isn’t particularly frightening or saddening. Chief among those reasons is that the title and lyrics are so straightforward. “Would you look at me now,” moans Phil Anselmo. “Can you tell I’m a man / With these scars on my wrists / To prove I’ll try again / To die again / Try to live through this night / Try to die again." The sentiment may be objectively harrowing, but rhymes like “I’ll try again / To die again” lack nuance, metaphor, obfuscation-- the kinds of things assholes like me value in our music. We might suspect that the lyrics are there for shock value more than to express actual profound misery, but I sometimes feel bad for poking fun at a singer who’s just screamed that they want to kill themselves, whether they’re sincere or not, because although I might prefer, taste-wise, that they describe their depression more poetically, I should still maybe be rattled by their statements despite not “liking” the song.

I do like the Pantera song, though, more for nostalgia reasons than for present-day aesthetic or emotional reasons. I also like the Rowland S. Howard song. “Shivers” begins with the lines, “I’ve been contemplating suicide / But it really doesn’t suit my style / So I think I’ll just act bored instead / And contain the blood I would’ve shed.” Howard’s words feel wry and self-aware, depressing and violent without being overwrought. Even though the word “suicide” is in the first line, “Shivers” resists being goofy or melodramatic largely because it doesn’t confront suicide-- and the violence therein-- as directly. The word sticks in the listener’s mind, but as the song goes on, it becomes more and more distant and, as such, abstract. It cultivates a sort of mystique. “I’ll try again / To die again” removes this mystique; it makes killing yourself very concrete, like it’s this one removed act of violence and not a wide-ranging, long-gestating issue with innumerable specific and non-specific causes. Indeed, “Shivers” gives us depression tied to other things that can make us sad-- a shattered love affair, for instance-- whereas “Suicide Note, Pt. 1” gives us “suicide” and nothing else. But even “Shivers” doesn’t present as complicated a picture of suicide as Portland-via-Providence duo, The Body. Ostensibly a metal band, they’re a group whose lexical, musical, and visual imagery often seems singlemindedly concerned with wanting to die and killing yourself.

The Body’s music and videos could, at face value, fall into the so-called goofy category. Their press photos show the band’s members, Chip King and Lee Buford, holding guns. Their recent videos for songs entitled “An Altar or A Grave” and “To Carry The Seeds of Death Within Me” depict, respectively, a mass suicide-by-drowning and a solitary man cutting open his forehead. Their interviews tend to find King and Buford expressing feelings of extreme loneliness and displacement, maybe even wanting to die. Their new album, which has “To Carry The Seeds of Death Within Me” on it in addition to “Alone All The Way” and “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain,” is called I Shall Die Here. Subtle? Not really. Shrouded in metaphor? Doesn’t seem like it. Witty? Self-aware? Distant? None of the above. No, The Body harps on death and despair almost to the point of absurdity-- and yet, when I listen to them or watch their videos, I don’t smirk. I’m not skeptical. Rather, most of the time, I’m genuinely affected-- disconcerted, upset, afraid, at least something.

So how does The Body manage to evoke this sense of misery and dread with a lexicon that’s, on the surface at least, fairly limited? Why does I Shall Die Here inspire me to think deeply about suicide-- not only in general but more specifically, too, like “Shivers” does-- even though its song titles, for instance, are no subtler than those on most hardcore or metal albums? I’d argue that their music actually does much the same work as “Shivers”-- it just goes about it differently. Which is to say: The Body plants “suicide” initially in your brain, but then, like Howard and not Pantera, refuses to give you anything more on that topic; rather, they give you the feeling of it, in your head and your heart and your gut, via a combination of several media, and force you to think about yourself in this abstract world they’ve created where “suicide” is all around.

This “world,” interestingly enough, graces I Shall Die Here’s cover. It depicts Earth, blackened so that only a small sliver of the planet is visible. I Shall Die Here, it says. Where’s “here”? Just that top part of Earth? The blackness surrounding Earth? Or, because the rest of the globe’s image is implied, everywhere on Earth simultaneously? When spoken, the title of the album implies something more specific: “here,” like, “I’m going to die right here, where I am now.” But when taken in concert with the album art, it becomes much more puzzling; not only is “here” anywhere, but “I” could be anyone. Hold up the album and say its title aloud: all of a sudden, you shall die here, and because you’re staring at a picture of the Earth, well, it’s true-- you shall die here (unless you’re an astronaut or an eccentric billionaire).

Like legions of avant-garde artists of the past hundred years, The Body utilizes several different media to involve the listener mentally and physically. More even than their album art, lyrics, and music videos (which are often truly terrifying and also very open-ended), though, their strongest weapon is the music itself. Throughout their discography, and never more so than on I Shall Die Here, The Body has proven that they’re one of the most aptly-named bands around; indeed, their music is body music. That’s not to say it makes you want to shake your hips, but that it resonates through your brain, your bones, your bowels. It’s oscillates continuously and unexpectedly between extremes: it’s bassy, screechy, and without strict form. It keeps you, quite literally, on your toes, feeling anxious and generally discomfited even without knowing the song titles.

I Shall Die Here is the best example of this phenomenon thus far, presumably because it was produced by Bobby Krlic, a.k.a. The Haxan Cloak. The British electronic producer has already proven adept, especially on last year’s Excavation, at making profoundly creepy and corporeal music that, again, actually deals explicitly with death. Though Krlic doesn’t have Pantera-esque lyrics, Excavation’s album cover depicts a noose surrounding by blackness, and Krlic describes the album as being a pseudo-concept album about a character who’s already passed away. Darkness, and specifically a focus on death, seemed to me initially why The Body and The Haxan Cloak make a good pairing.

Still, I think they approach the subject matter in near-opposite ways. Whereas The Body makes it about an “I” wanting to die-- about loneliness and feeling like an outcast and therefore wanting to leave this Earth-- The Haxan Cloak projects a more voyeuristic view of death. “That doesn’t come down to me being a dark person,” he told The Quietus last year. “[Darkness] is like a kind of adrenaline rush.” For Krlic, death and darkness are intriguing; Excavation is a concept album, he says, about a character who’s just passed away as opposed to one who’s living and wants to die. The floating, empty noose and song titles like “The Mirror Reflecting,” “Excavation,” or “Dieu” conjure a similar picture of distance from death-- of the thoughts and reflections that accompany it after the fact, not the physical pain pre-death that The Body are obsessed with. Complementing these themes, Excavation’s music is bassy and slow, dirge-like, elegiac-- the kind of music you’d hear while thinking about someone else’s death. The Body’s music, meanwhile, is the ambient soundtrack in the mind of someone who’s dying. It’s music that makes you to feel like you could, and maybe should, die at any moment.

What ties the two acts together, though, is their emphasis on making distinctly corporeal music. In that same Quietus interview, Krlic outlines his mission pretty clearly: “I want it to be physically as well as emotionally absorbing,” he says. “I wrote [Excavation] with low frequencies probably not even audible to the majority of listeners with normal listening apparatuses, frequencies designed to make you feel sick.” Like The Body, The Haxan Cloak’s music can affect your body in strange and subliminal ways. When that music is about suicide, all of a sudden you, feeling uncomfortable, are surrounded by thoughts of suicide.

Krlic’s contributions to I Shall Die Here manifest themselves most obviously in the unsettling electronic sequences that appear in most of the album’s six songs. In these parts, Chip King’s tortured screams might echo through an incredibly bassy sonic landscape, coming out the other end completely detached from their human source. Though the music is never quite dancefloor-ready, it sometimes has a sort of industrial-- or EBM, electronic “body” music--propulsiveness to it, making you want to move your body in a way no other Body songs do. Not only do your innards have to put up with The Body’s abrasive, erratic attack, but now they have to reconcile that discomfort with their urge to dance a little bit, all the while retaining an all-over sense of abject fear.

Nevertheless, The Body do still come dangerously close sometimes to being overwrought. I thought they were entering that territory the first time I listened to “Alone All The Way,” the second track on the new album. There’s a monologue at the beginning: a processed voice, sounding like something you’d hear in a Saw movie, begins talking about his “two choices,” which are to kill himself or stay alive and inflict pain upon others. But “Alone All The Way” ends up pulling the same trick as “Shivers” under different auspices; it introduces “suicide” but then quickly introduces different and, in this case, conflicting thoughts and feelings, all the while forcing you to keep suicide in the back of your mind. Then, it obscures its message even more-- literally. While listing the horrible things he could do to himself and others, the narrator’s previously-unaccompanied voice is shrouded in drums and feedback, becoming increasingly difficult to understand. Not long after the voice begins, it’s largely drowned out-- just audible enough for you to know that this miserable, unstable man is still speaking, but not audible enough for you to know the specifics of what he’s speaking about. Is he still talking about suicide? It’s up to you-- and because it’s up to you, you might find yourself thinking continuously and variously about suicide throughout the rest of the song.

Beyond just “Alone All The Way," though, the band uses a similar method with their vocals in general, which is to say that the lyrics are nearly impossible to make out. As a result, you hear a song that you think is about suicide because of its title, but you don’t really know because you can’t hear the other words. You listen more closely-- you engage deeper with the work-- and whether or not you end up comprehending the lyrics, you’ve entered into The Body’s visual, corporeal, aural world.

But do they actually want you to consider killing yourself? Do they want to kill themselves? Going back to the opening of “Alone All The Way,” the clear part of the narration is that the narrator has a choice. Amateur philosopher that I am, I related that back immediately to existentialism. In his Literary and Philosophical Essays, Jean-Paul Sartre writes, in regards to Meursault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, specifically, but also in regards to suicide in general, “The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions [...] He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him.” That The Body forces you to think about suicide in an all-encompassing, first-person, subjective way reflects this Sartre-ian attention and fascination. When I interviewed Lee Buford for Ad Hoc a few months ago, he told me that above all, The Body was concerned with escape, because they didn’t feel comfortable in this world. It’s not about death or pain or suicide, for them or for their listeners. In a weird way-- and, ultimately, an effective one-- it’s about freedom.

The Body - An Altar or A Grave from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

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