To Shock the Audience: a History of Power Electronics

To Shock the Audience: a History of Power Electronics

“To shock the audience is the ideal way to involve an audience.” - Joe D'Amato, Filmmaker

“I started cutting myself while making music, at first alone because it felt right. I wanted to experience some pain to really bring out what I had to say, how I wanted the music to sound. Feeling the blood flow heavy encouraged me to intensify crashing sounds and prepare for the next slice. The music is extreme, so bring the self-harm to the stage, as it’s part of the writing process.”

With his face painted black and ash smeared across his bare skin, Daniel Suffering, of Whorid, slices himself with razor blades over and over again, often staining his equipment with his own blood. This is not without consequence, as past performances have required visits to the emergency room.

Having begun performing in earnest just within the past few years, Whorid follows in the footsteps of such artists as Death Squad and Deathpile, finding not only influences within their works, but common ground in their shared interest in the Viennese Aktionists. “There is an internal pain, mainly stemming from a form of punishing myself,” tells Daniel Suffering. “It’s a rush when you’re performing live and your adrenaline is in overdrive because you’re bleeding from a gaping wound, almost severing an artery, but I do it to make the performance real.”

“If someone turns away or leaves because they see or hear something they don’t like, then my negativity has caused some disgust that they don’t want to experience; but they take that home with them.”

END OF A CENTURY

In 1999, following the shooting at Columbine High School, several mainstream news media outlets became fixated on the musical tastes of teenage shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Harris had created a website where he quoted, among many other things, the music and lyrics of KMFDM, Rammstein, and Marilyn Manson.

Looking back now, it has become a near-comical truism that so many people assumed that a few popular recording artists were appropriate scapegoats, rather than gun manufacturers, the federal and Colorado state governments, the boys’ parents, their teachers, the psychiatrists, or the police officials who later admitted that they indeed had probable cause to investigate Harris and Klebold months before the massacre.

No. More than likely, it was all the fault of the violent video games the two boys played and the so-called “angry goth music” of which they were fans.

On June 1, 1999, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club on the Christian Broadcasting Network issued a warning, “Goth: Self-Expression or Obsession?” The accompanying “fact sheet” included a quote from Christine O’Donnell, president of Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth: “What is behind the Gothic movement is New Age, the occult, and ultimately Satan.”

Meanwhile, Marilyn Manson became the unofficial mascot of all things dark and dangerous to the well-being of our nation’s youth, a turn-of-the-century bogeyman. Bill O’Reilly featured interviews with innocent, unprepared, and fairly inarticulate self-proclaimed “goths” who, for whatever reasons, volunteered to be spokespersons for their subculture. They failed miserably to sway their host’s already unshakable position that “goth culture” was like a “celebration of pain.”

While various major networks and mainstream news outlets reported on Marilyn Manson’s response to Columbine in Rolling Stone, they always seemed to preface his name with the qualifier “Shock Rocker,” as if it were his sole intention to disturb as many people as possible.

But what these paragons of journalistic integrity failed to recognize was the fact that, in all likelihood, Marilyn Manson’s intended audience found absolutely nothing shocking about what he was doing, and instead probably found the actions of those who claimed to be acting on behalf of the nation’s youth much more troubling.

At the time, there was a prevalent sense among many who worked within a far more obscure spectrum of “dark music” that if major television networks could latch on to these high-profile acts and parade them as the cause for this type of violence, then what might happen if they learned of artists who dwelled much deeper down that well?

If power electronics, for example, were to ever become exposed to the mainstream, what would follow? Rape, murder, fascism, pedophilia, and the millions of other brutalities of which humankind is guilty have all served as fodder for power electronics artists, portrayed in a far more urgent, explicit, and direct manner than anything Marilyn Manson ever concocted. By the standards of the underground, the mainstream artists who were being blamed for youth violence were quite tame.

Fifteen years post-Columbine, the number of artists working under the genre designation of “power electronics” has increased exponentially, as has the fan base. What is more, so-called “underground” music is far easier to find in the 21st century.

In the ’80s and ’90s, punk, metal, industrial, and noise relied on word-of-mouth, postal mail, print catalogues, tape trading, and actual human interaction to build an audience. A teenager can now spend a rainy afternoon downloading the entire twenty-year discography of an artist ten minutes after learning that the artist exists. It’s no wonder that certain “dark music” acts are making their way into the light.

CLASSIC POWER

In the introduction to a 1997 interview with New York power electronics legend Slogun for Worm Gear magazine, Jonathan Canady of Deathpile wrote a definitive statement about the nature of power electronics, later quoted in a 1998 print catalogue for Swedish industrial label Cold Meat Industry in promotion of Slogun’s The Pleasures of Death: “For those who do not know, the term power electronics specifically refers to ‘musicians’ who create experimental music influenced by groups such as Whitehouse, The Sodality, Sutcliffe Jugend, and Mauthausen Orchestra, among others.” Canady continues, “Essentially this is a mating of nonrhythmic electronic noise with extreme vocals dealing with topics including rape, abuse, murder, torture, and general sadism. Forget death metal. Forget gangsta rap. Forget gabber techno. Power electronics is the ultimate in extreme music.”

If we consider Whitehouse to be the progenitors of the genre (a common yet apocryphal story tells that they coined the term “power electronics”), we must consider their modus operandi as setting the essential guidelines for most who followed in their wake. Offensive or embittered lyrics barked over intense electronic noise have become the standard operating procedure for the majority of power electronics acts. Yet these are stylistic trappings of a genre now growing beyond the constraints of its own definition.

If a form of expression previously meant to remain obscure finds a wider audience, does that form of expression become diluted and without merit? If power electronics is no longer shocking because its original audience has become inured to it, should it therefore seek, or even impose on, new audiences who might find it difficult to process? We live in a world overflowing with horror, and perhaps art that forces us to revel in that horror loses its power when contrasted with grim reality.

This seems to be the case, at least, when power electronics has become commodified, with Blackest Ever Black, Sacred Bones, and Dais Records employing publicity agents, garnering positive attention for their power electronics acts in more mainstream press.

You take this into account and begin to wonder how these artists would be received if they were ever to find the same sort of exposure that someone like Marilyn Manson has enjoyed? Would they be lambasted for their “shocking” art? Marco Corbelli of Atrax Morgue made a career of releasing music about death. Suicidal imagery was a constant within his body of work, and he did in fact kill himself. What casual music fan is prepared for an artist like Corbelli?

FRESH BLOOD

New York power electronics artist Margaret Chardiet, who records and performs as Pharmakon, has—in a relatively short period of time— garnered quite a bit more attention (and acclaim) than the vast majority of her peers and forebears within the industrial noise underground.

The cover for Chardiet’s new record on Sacred Bones, Bestial Burden, shows the artist’s bare body covered in strategically arranged organ meats, as though she has been cut open for all to see. For the uninitiated observer, this image (much like the one of bare legs covered in maggots on her last album, Abandon) may seem repulsive, grotesque, “shocking.” Yet it concerns both the artist’s personal narrative (Bestial Burden’s cover was inspired by surgery to save one of Chardiet’s organs) and a tradition set down by extreme artists over the past several decades.

There are varying opinions on what makes Pharmakon stand out among her peer group. One salient difference is that she is a female working within a predominantly male and preeminently masculine genre, one that does not enjoy a reputation for sensitivity or tolerance. Whitehouse themselves set a misogynistic precedent with their lyrical themes. While this misogyny is a complex matter (Whitehouse founder William Bennett released a compilation in 2000 called Extreme Music From Women on his Susan Lawly imprint) it doesn’t make any difference to an offended listener if Whitehouse are actual misogynists or if they are simply taking the piss out of misogyny. To someone who doesn’t know any better, they are misogynists.

To some, for Chardiet to have “made it” within, above, and beyond the constraints of this “scene” may be noteworthy in and of itself. This paradox, though, is a simplistic one. Chardiet’s success illustrates that power electronics is dynamic. The number of female industrial noise acts is expanding along with the scene itself. Zola Jesus, whose early career was synonymous with Sacred Bones, was in essence a noise artist until fairly recently. That her professional trajectory has diverged about as far from those origins as it’s possible to go does not change the fact of her origins.

Bestial Burden’s artwork in particular conjures comparisons not only to Francis Bacon paintings, but also with the works of the Viennese performance artists collectively known as the Aktionists, whose so-called “transgressive art,” made during the 1960s and 1970s (and in some cases, still made today), uses the human bodies of both artists and observers as its canvas. With large quantities of real blood and animal carcasses serving as the medium, Aktionists such as Hermann Nitsch and Otto Muehl often sought to challenge notions of obscenity and degradation, juxtaposing sensuality and death. Sometimes this landed them in jail.

The connections between Aktionism and this image of Chardiet, laid out with a veritable banquet of dead meat upon her bare skin, may or may not be merely aesthetic. But the album’s themes are grounded in extremely personal territory and certainly can not be reduced to a mere attempt at shocking her fans, many of whom have already seen far worse from other artists.

AKTION IN ACTION

Martin Bladh, of Norrköping, Sweden, fronts the industrial band IRM, is a member of the band Skin Area, and releases music under his own name. Not content with a single medium, Bladh works in the realms of visual and performance art and has written extensively on a variety of obscure subjects. His book, Des, contains correspondence with jailed British serial killer Dennis “Des” Nilsen and Bladh’s own interpretations of Nilsen’s case. Bladh provides challenging personal insight through his own words and visual art, as well as text from the son of Nilsen’s final victim.

“I prefer [Richard Wagner’s] term Gesamtkunstwerk: the total work of art,” Bladh explains, “where different components blend together to create one union. And because of my compulsive need to revise my subject, I prefer to work with series, doing numerous studies of the same topic. To me the human body is the center of attention. ”

“I’ve met Hermann Nitsch two times,” explains Bladh. “The first time was as a journalist covering the Two-Day-Play at his castle Prinzendorf in 2004. The second time was at the Vienna Burgtheater in connection to his 122 Aktion in 2005. I was mainly a spectator, and didn’t really participate in these actions, except from some minor duties like carrying torches and stretchers and pouring blood from a test tube into the wound of a pig carcass.”

What can be considered grotesque, violent, and reprehensible to one individual might be the purest definition of absolute beauty to another, and power electronics almost gleefully rejoices in these extreme gray areas. It takes a certain kind of person to fully embrace this mode of expression, and often these performances have been designed to create a negative reaction on the part of the audience.

An important aspect of certain power electronics performances has always been physical interaction with the crowd. Acts like Slogun and Con-Dom are well known for actually brawling with or assaulting attendees of their shows, and often the backlash from these events has led to enemies being made of fans. Other acts opt for creating an entirely other form of adverse response, such as Finland’s Grunt, who, in the past, incorporated graphic, unsettling, homemade pornographic visuals in his performances, intentionally alienating certain members of the crowd. The sounds themselves can be difficult enough for some; there are tales of noise shows prompting acid flashbacks or inducing nausea.

Bay Area heavy electronics artist Michael Nine currently works under the project name MK9, though from the mid-to-late ’90s until early in the 21st century, he worked as Death Squad. Although MK9 is considerably less confrontational than its predecessor, the project continues where Death Squad left off, dealing with issues of individual isolation within the larger context of the human condition. On June 25, 1999, not long after the Columbine shootings, Death Squad appeared at the San Francisco venue The Lab. In retrospect, this controversial and particularly disturbing performance was poorly timed.

In a chilling parallel to the Columbine massacre, the performance was videotaped (the VHS is still available to purchase from the MK9 website). The camera shot is mostly stationary, and placed at a distance from which certain details are difficult to make out. Michael sits at a single small table with a lamp upon it. The minimal lighting is available mainly from the video projections play ing out in the background behind the stage and from the lamp. Near the lamp lies a revolver, razor blades, a syringe, a cup filled with what may or may not have been heroin, and a box of live bullets. Michael can be seen filling the syringe from this cup, injecting himself, and loading the gun. He proceeds to repeatedly and aggressively slice both his arms with razors, then abruptly stands and levels the pistol in the direction of the audience, pacing back and forth. According to eyewitness statements on a printout included in the VHS package, Michael approached seated members of the audience—microphone in one hand, pistol in the other—and put the gun to their temples.

“‘Intent’ or ‘The Gun Show,’ as some have referred to it, was more of a test of the audience and myself,” Michael writes in an email. “I am a huge fan of breaking down the barrier between the performance and the individuals viewing it. I need to state that I am not interested in causing physical harm or injury to anyone, ever. With this show there were some safety factors that were taken into consideration but were too random for me to control. Any [psychological] harm that happened because of the performance, even if it was absolutely incidental and unintentional, is still my responsibility. I am the one accountable. [...] Underneath all the bullshit that we all create, we are still just human beings. Façades, guises, and personae aside, we have to be responsible for how we affect others. It took a while for the nightmares to subside from that performance, maybe up to a year.”

Trepaneringsritualen, the solo death industrial project of Gothenborg artist Thomas Martin Ekelund, sees different potential in shock. Calling his performances “rituals,” Ekelund smears the blood of various animals into his eyes and covers his head in a burlap sack soaked in the same. His material is steeped in anti-Christian sentiment, with such album titles as Papist Pretender and Judas Goat.

“For me it’s all about attaining knowledge, emails Ekelund. “It’s often a confusing and terrifying journey, and that is also what I am trying to convey through live rituals: confusion and terror. To achieve this, a live ritual will attack all the senses of the audience: an onslaught of sound, smells (typically incense, rotting blood, and mildew), and sights (strobe lights, fog, and videos). I prefer to perform in small spaces, with little or no stage, because I very much need the energy of those in attendance to reach a transcendent state.”

The elephant in the room when describing all of these figures is the aforementioned Jonathan Canady, who has a rich history in various forms of extreme music and art. His industrial metal project Dead World was one of the first acts signed to Relapse Records in the early ‘90s, and he has recorded and performed in close to a dozen incarnations during the past two decades. Deathpile, which was active from 1994 to around 2005, continues to stand tall among the herd as a highly influential, highly controversial project.

“[Deathpile] began when I was a very angry 20 something, influenced by the bands mentioned in [my] Slogun [interview in Worm Gear], as well as Intrinsic Action, SPK, Lille Roger, Atrax Morgue, and others,” tells Canady. “I just wanted to do something similar, but with my own twist. Eventually I attempted to outdo my predecessors by making all the subject matter crystal clear and using true crime and pornography as source material directly. I had a sincere interest in that subject matter at the time, but I definitely was also trying to be ‘shocking’ to further the reputation of Deathpile. Be careful what you wish for.”

Canady’s visual art has been featured in galleries and museum exhibits around the world, and he is also known as an aficionado of underground film, particularly foreign horror and exploitation. “[To be shocking] is to do something that takes the audience completely off guard and out of themselves, Canady explains. “Usually it has a negative connotation. However I think shock for me, as a jaded person who enjoys difficult music, cinema, and visual art, is a positive experience. I recall using that very expression when describing Alejandro Jodorowsky’s latest movie The Dance of Reality. I told a friend I was happy to see that Jodorowsky could still be shocking at 85 years old. To succeed at being shocking these days is a true artistic achievement that very few can pull off.”

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