Rough Sea with Wreckage J.M.W. Turner
I had recently returned from my first tour in Afghanistan. At the time, I was stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington, about an hour south of Seattle. My buddy, who deployed with me, suggested we go see this metal show there. Neither of us were very familiar with the band, Isis. It was 2009, before the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and so the negative connotation did not exist. They were named Isis after the Egyptian Goddess. So, we went to this show at a small venue, a little standing room up front, a little seating in the back, and my buddy, he asked that we sit, because while deployed he’d been shot through the leg.
We sat down, a crowd of tough looking kids filed up front, the lights dimmed, and the band walked on stage. Immediately, we were blown away. The dark ambience of synthesizers, the thunder of bass and drums, the crack of guitar, and from the lead singer and guitarist, Aaron Turner, a growl like nothing I’d ever heard, all of it emerged seemingly from some unfathomable abyss. And I mean that in the most positive way.
Simultaneously, my buddy and I turned toward each other with the same look on our face expressing the deep resonation we both felt. This music was it, the musical parallel to our psychological state—something true and also necessary. Throughout the show, the band would bring the crowd to an almost unbearable state of tension, so that out of the circling mosh pit, seeing a body sacrificed and thrown on stage- like a Pre-Christian form of catharsis from a wrathful God—would not have seemed altogether out the ordinary. But then, at this climatic point, the music would lapse into tranquility, and all was at ease.
Now, as back then, I have a taste in music that could only be described as eclectic. I try to find the beauty in all things, but I still return to the since disbanded IsIs, and I’ve found, more recently, Aaron Turner’s new projects, the first being, Sumac. Here again, after first listening to their album “What One Becomes,” I was struck by the profundity of its arrangement.
Warning: not for the casual listener. The album opens with chaos, a universe being created from the collision of atoms in space, and from this, oceanic waves of sounds—almost 20 terrifying minutes of it before the first rays of light shine through. The harmony, however, is brief. As the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and mankind over them, all remain locked in a primordial struggle, so too does the music and never full resolves. Yes, it is heavy. Yes, it is metal.
But, before dismissing Turner’s musical philosophy as some woebegone nihilism, I think it is important to look, too, at his collaboration with his wife, Faith Coloccia. She is the one who really heads the project, Mamiffer. Together, with rotating line of other musicians, they have released several albums, the latest being, “The World Unseen,” which she described as “an exploration of subconscious and psychic bonds between the past and present, and the ways in which the musical devices of repetition and incantation create hands across the chasm that divide the human from the divine.” Reflected in this concept, as with those underpinning ISIS and Sumac, there is really a wholeness one might take solace in. Between our conscious and subconscious, past and present, humanity and divinity, there we exist, as capable of creating some really beautiful stuff as we are at destroying it.