Heathen Beast – Rise of the Saffron Empire (Transcending Obscurity Distribution, 25 April 2016)
MAKE – Pilgrimage of Loathing (Accident Prone Records, 15 July 2016)
It’s pretty much a universal truth that there are terrible people and terrible situations everywhere in the world, often when it comes to people who have power and influence over other people and the ability to make decisions about the laws and how the public is governed. This has been a societal problem for as long as society has existed, and people have always tried to find ways to protest or fight back. Back in olden times, folks like Woody Guthrie or Peter, Paul and Mary would sit around, holding hands, and singing about how the times were a-changin’. But since then, the times have a-changed; from MC5 to Public Enemy to Rage Against the Machine protest songs have increasingly shifted from blowin’ in the wind to fighting the powers that be.
To illustrate that concept, today we’re going to take a look at new or recent releases by two bands from different sides of the world, which nevertheless seem to share a similar ideology.
Heathen Beast, from Calcutta, India, has always taken a stance against what they consider to be racist governmental policies, in addition to calling out the evils that are committed in the name of religion. These outspoken positions have forced the band’s members to always hide behind the anonymity of pseudonyms, but even still, it was recently announced that the group would be dissolving “under mysterious circumstances” — the implication being that they may have been (or may have felt) threatened by some person or entity.
Before they completely disappeared, though, a brand new EP entitled Rise of the Saffron Empire has emerged via the Transcending Obscurity India subdivision Transcending Obscurity Distribution. Once again, this new material focuses on the country’s political climate, including what they referred to as the “extremist right-wing agenda of Hindutva,” which has been called “clasically fascist” in nature.
The three-track EP kicks off with the title track, introduced in classic Heathen Beast fashion with tabla drums and other similar percussion supporting a traditionally Indian-sounding guitar melody — all set over heavily syncopated chugging and double-kick drumming that increase in intensity over the first minute, before just exploding into a blackened death metal style. The rest of the song is fast and chaotic, and with particularly caustic, nasty vocals, but the tabla drums often stand out in combination with the “regular” metal drums. The next song “The Systematic Annihilation of Islam” (which I don’t think is intended as an attack on that religion in particular, but rather, is meant to show that the band is diverse and inclusive, because they are against ALL religions equally) is even faster and even more chaotic, with additional flavoring provided here by a variety of traditional Indian instruments including carnatic violin and sitar.
Finally, we have “Swachh Bharat” which is slower, and even a bit doom-oriented, and in which a cool violin solo features prominently within the first couple of minutes. This title is Hindi for “Clean India”. I have to confess that as an American citizen I am not terribly well-informed about Indian politics, but from what I can understand here, it seems the band is using Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign for modernized sanitation as a cleverly veiled metaphor for a fascist/nazi “final solution” type of cleansing and purification.
Anyone who has been following Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s MAKE on any sort of social media lately (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for??) should be keenly aware of the band’s displeasure with the backward and intolerant views and policies that have had a stranglehold on their home state, across the south, and really, all over this country. Bassist/vocalist Spencer Lee has stated that it “looks like things are sprinting towards hell right now,” while guitarist/vocalist Scott Endres describes the band’s new album Pilgrimage of Loathing (which comes out today!) as a response to “all of the horrible, horrible shit happening in America right now, […] saying, ‘We are not fucking ok with any of this.'” This album, the band’s third, follows closely on the heels of their last full-length The Golden Veil, which was released exactly one year ago this weekend.
It seems the relatively quick turnaround time (there was a three year gap between the first two records) is the result of the band really having a lot to say all of a sudden. There’s always been awful shit in the world, as I said in the beginning, but that appears to have been accelerating lately. States continue to come up with new laws that explicitly serve to deny certain rights to specific demographic groups, while practically every day we hear about another instance of an unarmed citizen (usually of a minority race) being killed needlessly by law enforcement, completely circumventing all of the laws about due process and basic human rights, but somehow never seeming to have any real repercussion. And then some off-the-wall nutjob decides to run for president, and he’s constantly spouting off playground-style insults rather than articulate statements of position, as well as the occasional off-color remark that disparages an entire race or nationality — which usually wouldn’t be very note-worthy, since we’ve had all sorts of crazies on the fringes of elections for decades. But this time around, the national media has found that it can be highly entertaining (and therefore, attractive to viewers/readers) to keep shining the spotlight on the fringe candidate, and with this over-shadowing any rational people who may have had beneficial ideas — combined with the unfortunate fact that there are large pockets of the populace who agree with the loathsome message that’s being spread — now we find ourselves in the embarassing situation of having a vacillating xenophobe about to become the nominated presidential candidate for one of the major political parties in this country. And since we have gotten to the point where there are only two parties with any relevance at all, our choices for the leadership of this country for the next four years are between that and someone who has been (and may still be) undergoing investigation for possible criminal misconduct while serving in a high-ranking diplomatic position within the federal government.
So, getting back to MAKE and Pilgrimage of Loathing. Each of the band’s releases — the albums and intermittant EPs — has had some thematic and stylistic ties to their previous work, while also showing some shifts in direction, and this album is no exception. About half of the material here could have fit seamlessly on The Golden Veil (and with nods to the Demos and Outtakes and In Pursuit EPs as well), while this new record also introduces a heavier, angrier element that has become much more palpable and prominent than in the past. Opening track “The Somnambulist,” for example, fades in to a familiar dreamy, post-metal soundscape (accompanied by heavily distorted guitars), but the vocals here are especially harsh for the most part; “Two Hawks Fucking” is mellow and shimmery — perhaps even wistful — even more reminiscent of the last album; while the sixth and final song “0/1” features the familiar MAKE sound during the first half, but gradually transmogrifies into something much more chaotic, angry, and full of frustration.
But in this case, clearly what the album sounds like is less important than the meaning behind it, which is to basically express the band’s malcontentedness with the current climate, including all the factors I’ve described here and much more. The title “The Somnambulist” seems like it could be an indictment of the zombie-like state in which the majority of people spend their daily lives, a passive disinterest and the resultant blindness to many of society’s growing evils. “Birthed into a Grave They Made for Us,” which is built upon a vaguely industrial-thrash vibe, features pissed-off vocals yelling about capitalism taken to a dangerous extreme: throughout masses of people have always imprisoned by poverty while the rich have kept getting richer, but now “Even our debt is monetized,” said bassist Lee recently when discussing this song, which essentially means that some are getting richer specifically BECAUSE there are people who are oppressed by poverty.
The shortest song here, at only three and a half minutes, but scathingly heavy — and perhaps the most significant to the band based on their absolute hatred of the atrocities that have been taking place in North Carolinian politics — “Human Garbage” is their ode to state governor Pat McCrory, who already had a history of controversial and contentious actions even before this year’s much-publicized, widely-derided, offensively discriminatory HB-2 anti-LGBT legislation. Which is why much of the band’s new merchandise features the McCrory’s likeness with the “Human Garbage” caption, proceeds from which are being donated to the Southerners on New Ground (SONG) organization to help fight against discrimination and hateful, unconstitutional legislation.
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Rise of the Saffron Empire is available digitally or in limited CD edition here, or the extremely limited “fan pack” bundle can be found here. The digital version of Pilgrimage of Loathing is currently available for pre-order here, or on vinyl right here.
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