Thursday, 4 November 2010

Leviathan | Music | Leviathan.Rook.Crow.JohnnyRook.Ox.Eagle.Lion.etc.

Shearwater’s Rook is an astonishingly good record for a whole bunch of reasons, most of them Jonathan Meiburg-related – the guy is just embarrassingly gifted (and wears glasses far better than Franzen wears glasses). I’ve got a theory about its particular excellentness, though, which doesn’t necessarily apply to the other Shearwater albums and certainly not to Okkervil River’s (Meiburg’s other band’s) work. To my mind, Rook learns a lot, and takes a lot, from metal – yes, I said it, metal – whilst not ending up shit like metal. And I’m not saying that just because their drummer’s called Thor.

A scattering of evidence. Their drummer’s called Thor. The opening track has a definite melodramatic ‘prologue’ feel to it, introducing themes that will go on to recur throughout the rest of the album’s ‘narrative’ – avian wildlife, maritime imagery, that sorta thing – before cracking up into a big ol’ crash inspired by the lines, ‘But your angel’s on holiday / And that wave rises slowly and breaks.’ The next track does something similar, working itself up to growled threatenings of how ‘we’ll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed’ – albeit ones flecked with choirs and cornets. And the track after that is called ‘Leviathan, Bound’. The first half a word that, due to its biblical, satanic and demonological connotations, had previously only burrowed its way into music by bands like Cradle of Filth and Gothminister. Indeed, there’s a guy called Leviathan whose biggest hits to date include the syntactically questionable ‘Fucking Your Ghost In Chains Of Ice’, ‘A Bouquet Of Blood For Skull’ and ‘Heir To The Noose Of Ghoul’. And no, before you ask, he’s not another Norwegian black metal act with a language excuse, he’s some dude from California who once explained, ‘lyrics are important and also very hard for me... at times, the way things come out in words sounds like nonsense. I don’t consider myself a poet by any means.’

No shit. Still, I guess a reputation for being illiterate retards has sold a fuckton of Kings of Leon records, so perhaps Leviathan’s ‘Wrest’ is just another shameless yankee capitalist.
Anyway. One imagines, what with Okkervil River’s various forays into Great American Literature (one of which is included on this mixtape) that Meiburg’s concern here is more Moby Dick than it is one of the seven princes of hell – but ‘Leviathan, Bound’ does combine lyrics about a ‘trembling jaw’ with a splendid yelled second chorus that, to my mind, reflects a more than passing acquaintance with metal-ish tropes. I think the thing to focus on here is the fact the record is called Rook – and not, y’see, Crow. Because as Brandon Lee probably knows best of all, the crow/raven is a creature associated with every kind of gothic shit, where the rook is a bit more complicated and ambiguous. Indeed, Shearwater’s adoption of the rook strikes me as a useful focal point of the record’s relationship with metal. (And before you start being all, it’s just a name bro, it’s just a fucken album title, watch these lovely videos, paying particular attention to the excellent penguins, and think again.)

For though the rook is traditionally associated with bad weather and impending death, and though it is the Blunderstone Rookery and its empty rooks’ nests what represents the backdrop to David Copperfield’s long-suffering mother’s passing, so one also finds the cultural rook symbolising other, less Iron Maiden things. Take the gorgeous example of Alexei Savrasov’s 1871 painting ‘The Rooks Have Returned’:
Here, winter and mortality are in decline and the rooks offer an early portent of the arrival of spring. I love this painting. It reminds me of my favourite line in Lord of the Rings – both book and film, I hasten to add:

So fair, so cold; like a morning of pale spring still clinging to winter’s chill.

Moreover, based on those above lovely videos, it seems it is the ‘Johnny Rook’ (or Straited Caracara to those willing to toss aside fun nicknames) from the Falkland Islands that specifically inspired Shearwater. And sure enough, Johnny can specifically be identified via his mischievous, whimsical habits, so different from the ol’ raven trick of eating living things’ eyes. This, from Wikipedia:

Often it is known to steal red objects such as clothing or handkerchiefs, possibly because red is the colour of meat. Like all falconiformes it has excellent colour vision which easily surpasses that of any known mammal. Often it will also raid dustbins and move rocks to get food from underneath, thus proving themselves to be one of the most intelligent of the birds of prey.

As a general rule, the rook has been enjoyed by bands and songwriters considerably less hairy and scary and more, well, indie than ‘Wrest’ and his brethren (he definitely refers to his pals as brethren) with their ravens and crows and eyes. Bands like XTC, Elliott Brood (who also wrote a song about the Johnny Rook) and iLiKETRAiNS – the latter who composed ‘A Rook House For Bobby’ about Bobby Fischer, the former world chess champion slash arguably the greatest player of all time who variously joined an apocalyptic cult, had the fillings removed from his teeth fearing that they’d hamper his ability to think straight, got arrested in Japan and turned up a year later in Iceland before dying three years later with the last words, ‘nothing is as healing as the human touch.’ (This would be a good time to point out that chess has had a part to play in defining the rook as a creature associated more with eccentricity than düm und glüm.)

And what links these bands, musically-speaking? A melodramatic edge, an enjoyably self-indulgent approach to narrative, a rather thrilling occasional heavy-handedness – all of which can be traced, in one way or another, back to the same metallic influence displayed by Jonathan Meiburg and Shearwater. Evidently the rook is the symbol of music that takes from metal without becoming metal thus not ending up shit like metal – a bestial musical liminality, if you will. A fact that the excellent and similarly enjoyably pompous Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man are definitely reflecting on with their animal/transition-focussed name.
(I once saw the Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man singer self-consciously ‘warming up’ for a show by reading Primo Levi’s harrowing If This Is A Man. If that’s not a clever, witty, erudite, indie take on metalness, then I don’t know what it is. Actually I do: it’s called being a fucking prick. Who uses a book about the holocaust to show off? He’s called Frederick Blood-Royale [of course he fucking is] in case you’re interested and here’s his blog.)

It all makes me wonder whether other animals might be identified as the iconographic bridge between other musical genres – whether other bestial musical liminalities exist. I guess a place to start might be the ox, the eagle and the lion. Not the man. Not sure that would work. So…

I’m going to sign this off with a you decidez sorta sidestep actually, I’m afraid. That’s three calls too big to make in one night.

(To access a Spotify Essay-Soundtrack-Playlist to accompany the above open your exercise books here)

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

No comments:

Post a Comment