23 Mar Let Me Out of My Prison Cell: The Liberated Omni-Metal of SOLEFALD’s Neonism
by Hunter Ginn
In the premillennial twilight of 1999, it felt as though the reservoir had been emptied, the future-obsessed musical possibilities of the decade finally exhausted. The robust vistas available to rock, metal, hip hop, and electronic music in the early ’90s had narrowed, and artists found themselves encumbered by restrictive generic categories. While most of the world wrestled with the anxiety of the looming oughts, – e.g. the unfulfilled Y2K doomsday predictions – metal, at last, began to struggle with its own capacity for invention. Metal listeners in the ’90s bore witness to an unprecedented wave of innovation and creative energy. Seeds planted in the frontier pastures of the ’80s sprouted into a variety of new sounds: prog-death, avant-black, atmospheric doom, as well as a host of other, more difficult-to-classify, styles. Every season seemed to announce a new mongrel sound. Looking back, the decade feels like a sustained fever dream, a hallucination of potential and fearlessness.
No country leaned more confidently into this pluralistic future than Norway. By the mid-’90s, a segment of the country’s black metal bands began to unfurl their wings to reveal hidden and mysterious depths, without jettisoning entirely the core signifiers of the black metal sound. Of course, one could argue that the arc of Norwegian metal cannot be traced according to the rules that govern the rest of the metal world. Take, for example, Arcturus’ “My Angel,” a primitive but futuristic slice of moon-metal, or the sorcery of Beyond Dawn’s Up Through the Linear Shades, which imports the trauma of early Swans and the cosmic dissonance of Voivod’s Killing Technology. Both works evidence young bands not only slithering out of the grips of convenient taxonomy but also preparing the way for Norway’s best and brightest to begin their own journeys through the forests of progress.
In 1995, Kristiansand’s Solefald released its first and only demo, Jernlov (“Iron Law”), to little fanfare. The songs on the demo, two of which – “Philosophical Revolt” and “When the Moon Is on the Wave” – would be included on the band’s debut full-length, The Linear Scaffold, cling more closely to black metal than anything else in the band’s catalog. But the desperate vocals and winds of trebly guitar are peppered with passages of melodic singing, eerie clean guitars ala In the Woods…, keyboards, and sound effects, all of which indicate the subversive tendencies that would come to characterize the band’s later music. Though mostly ignored, the band’s adventurous sound caught the ear of Roberto Mammarella, whose Avantgarde Music signed Solefald and released The Linear Scaffold in 1997. In the two years since Jernlov, the duo (Cornelius: vocals, guitars, and bass; Lazare: vocals, keyboards, and drums) had embraced and expanded upon the experimental elements that filigreed the demo. Scaffold features eight songs that apply pressure to black metal’s established set of systems and values, often challenging the boundaries of the genre without rupturing them altogether. The band’s frequent use of symphonic keyboards and black metal’s trademark minor-key, arpeggiated guitar language establishes a lineage with earlier and more conservative Norwegian bands. As well, the atmosphere of the album could be described alternately as cosmic and bucolic, descriptors that can be applied to a wide swath of bands in Norway’s second-wave scene. But just beneath the surface – and sometimes gliding across it – the listener can hear the dark impulses of a band getting ready to make a move from the harbor of the countryside to the merciless high rises and back alleys of the big city.
In his essay, “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism,” literary theorist, Ihab Hassan, endeavors to establish, if not a set of unifying principles, then at least a large cluster of tendencies and assumptions that give shape to a broad, amorphous body of disciplines. Hassan works through the connections that bind – though, one could argue, tenuously – such disparate thinkers as Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault, Stockhausen, and Borges. As Hassan admits, “Indubitably, these names are far too heterogeneous to form a movement, paradigm, or school. Still, they may evoke a number of related cultural tendencies, a constellation of values, a repertoire of procedures and attitudes. These we call a postmodernism.”[i] But Hassan pushes on, and in doing so arrives at a striking set of binaries that creates a fissure between the formally-radical, but nostalgic and mournful, Modernism of the early 20th century and the anarchic mood of postmodernist art and thinking. Below is a selection of Hassan’s now-iconic table of distinctions:
Form (conjunctive, closed) Antiform (disjunctive, open)
Lisible (readerly) Scriptible (writerly)
Master Code Idiolect
God the Father The Holy Ghost
Ostensibly, these categories are set in opposition to one another. In the modernist column, Hassan carves out the tendencies of order, transparency, stability. By contrast, the postmodern column plays with more equivocal notions, dealing instead in collapse, multiplicity, concurrence, transfiguration, and illogic. One reconciled, the other irreconcilable. But I would argue that there is, indeed, an opportunity for synthesis between these two. And I would contend that Solefald’s 1999 album, Neonism, functions as a conduit for this alloy of balance and asymmetry.
Neonism resists categorization at every turn, it is also defined by its ability to maneuver through categories, to juggle them, and to outwit the listener’s expectations. Looking back, it feels as though this record could have only been made in 1999, as both a summary and a dismantling of the decade’s progress in sound. The ’90s found metal entering into relationships with outside genres of all sorts – jazz, progressive rock, classical, electronic music, folk, et al. The process of mapping disparate sounds onto metal’s framework resulted in a number of recombinant musics that could still claim heritage to metal, from Cynic’s Zen-death to Tiamat’s astral masterpiece, Wildhoney. Neonism, then, may well represent the evolutionary end of hybrid-metal, the ultimate Frankenstein mosaic pieced together with a thousand molecules of sound.
The game begins with the album title. To Hassan’s point of “play,” the title is both a portmanteau and a neologism, which itself creates a sort of slant rhyme with Neonism. So, we have prosodic hijinks at work, as well. But it would be short-sighted to focus only on the apparent impishness of the title. Instead, it is a deliberate strategy, a preparatory measure that brings the listener’s mind into focus and readies him/her for the journey ahead. And the journey begins abruptly. The album’s first song, “Fluorescent (The Total Orchestra),” begins with five seconds of kitschy horror movie keyboards before a hailstorm of shrieks, sheets of guitar noise, and blasting drums erupt from the speakers. Five seconds later, keyboardist, Lars Nedland, takes the helm and drapes a curious melody over a half-time groove, thereby establishing three separate ideas, all of which will be developed over the course of the song, in the first fifteen seconds. Much of the record keeps pace with this kind of maniacal outpouring of ideas.
The album’s second song, “Speed Increased to Scaffold,” briefly revisits the pastoralism of the debut before tendril-like ribbons of black metal tremolo reach out to the listener. The song takes a more radical turn next, introducing a dimension of tech metal into the mix, a style that, up to 1999, had rarely been integrated into the black metal framework. In his Metal Maniacs piece on Neonism, Jeff Wagner observes this development and compares this passage to the Wisconsin-based Realm, who hawked a particularly agile style of power-thrash in the late ’80s/early ’90s.[ii] This moment further underscores the subversive spirit of the band – bands like Ved Buens Ende and Fleurety had begun to fold into their music non-metal styles, but to invoke the technical elegance of Watchtower and Mekong Delta seems like a more precise heresy. After all, the second wave of Norwegian black metal was, at least in part, a reclamation project, a call for bands to divest themselves of the commercial, virtuosic trappings of death metal and rekindle the primitive fires started by Bathory, Sodom, and, Vulcano. These are the strains of a rebel angel played in 13/16.
The range of styles pursued by the band makes it difficult to identify highlights. Solefald’s movement along the generic spectrum mirrors Hassan’s concept of the “Rhizome,” though the band sorts through genres with more “purpose” and restraint than is typical for jump-cut, genre-hopping artists like Mr. Bungle, Estradasphere, and Sigh. Over the course of Neonism, the listener is guided through an audio house of mirrors where the Sprechgesang-rock of “Backpacka Baba” collides with the understated jungle rhythms near the end of “The New Timelessness.” With the panoply of styles on display, it’s easy to overlook the album’s anxious, but integral, relationship with pop music. Moreso than any other Norwegian band of the period, Solefald displays a keen ear for hooks and the ability to deploy these earworms in fresh, surprising ways. One of the band’s now iconic pieces, “CK II Chanel No. 6,” features a stunningly catchy chorus, one that, were it situated in a different context, could be broadcast over commercial airwaves. The same could be said for the crashing beauty of “Flourescent,” though its apparent loveliness is corrupted by Lazare‘s absurdist, Duchamp-ian lyrics. Solefald shows its deftness for hooks in less obvious ways, as well, such as the Balkan funk passages of “Third Person Plural” and the drum/vocal break in “Proprietors of Red,” which is sung in an evidently-invented language and reduces the band’s sound, for a moment, at least, to pure rhythm. These mashups play into the ironic juxtapositions that typify postmodern methods – such that they are – and would have been of particular interest to Mr. Hassan. In these moments of earnest beauty, which, as I have mentioned, are often underpinned by complex and less stable ideas, do we find evidence of the core tensions – the negotiation of splendor and puckish revelry, for instance – that give Neonism its curious power.
If the music on Neonism evidences a band committed to upending generic conventions, then so do the lyrics reinforce these tendencies, creating a tangled, Babel-onian mesh of tongues and references. In order to work through the cosmopolitan bedlam of the lyrics, perhaps it might be helpful to excerpt a couple of passages from the songs themselves.
From “Fluorescent (The Total Orchestra)”:
Gaia sips the artificial red
She swallows the light
Only to throw up shadows minutes later
In a broken public toilet
From “Speed Increased to Scaffold”:
The world situation calls for evacuation
We wait in the dark for the next ejaculation
Your black fingernails clasp the candelabra
Turn the light on I see the abracadabra
The passage cited from “Fluorescent” demonstrates Solefald’s movement across various spectra, including mythology and pop/pulp culture. In this song, Solefald corrupts the Gaia myth – Gaia being, in Greek mythology, the mother of Earth and creation. Against Solefald’s decadent, urban backdrop, Gaia’s procreative powers derive from a potion, rather than ex nihilo, and the process of creation is altogether more profane. Here, creation results from sickness, the inability to process the “light,” and from the infirmity of the human body rather than the incorruptible body divine. The implications sit comfortably within the context of 20th century notions of decay and decline, and further trace out Solefald’s migration from the “bohemian countryside” to the corporeal grime of the modern city.
The final two stanzas manage, rather tersely, to connect nearly 2000 years of philosophical thought. The “shadows” thrown up by Gaia recall Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave,’ where shadows function as a metonymic substitution for reality and representation for those imprisoned within the cave. Amidst the vulgar ambience of the public restroom, Solefald plays (again, with “play”) with the plurality of experience and the illusions of the physical world. The passage seems to suggest that, in this late period, creation has been reduced to simulacra, the progeny themselves only “shadows,” ciphers. The passage also recalls the work of Jean Baudrillard, who writes about the Platonic fissure as “no more mirror of being, of the real and the concept.”[iii] As evidenced by the band’s music, in the world of Solefald, reality and impressions are most often distorted and blurred.
In the excerpt from “Speed Increased to Scaffold,” Solefald delivers couplets that can be read through opposing filters. The first line in the stanza situates the listener in the anxious calendar of the late 90s, a neo- fin-de-siecle, where departure may be seen as the only defense against entropy and doom. The next three lines use shifting pronouns to establish a micro-narrative. In the second line, the narrator participates in the waiting game, an anticipation of a major event. In line three, the narrator summons tropes directly from the black metal canon: the post-Goth black fingernails, the emblematic candelabra, the clasping hand, the primal might. Note, in this line, the narrator’s reversal from participant to observer. Finally, with the lights on, the rabbit is pulled from the hat and revealed to the narrator.
But this passage could be read in another, more venomous, way. The “evacuation” in the first line could be translated as a necessary escape, a move away from the conservative dogma that plagued the global black metal scene by the end of the 90s. The “ejaculation,” too, may be read as a Beckett-ian nonevent, yet another flaccid, third-generation copy of a nearly decade-old sound. The third line, if this reading holds water, displays the greatest scorn, a gibe at those within the scene content to replicate both the music and the artwork of Transylvanian Hunger, rather than forge new paths of their own. Finally, once the lights have been turned on, the subject’s colors are revealed: vanilla-white rather than obsidian-black. Withering irony or genuine contempt, Solefald celebrates its apartness and takes the path almost never traveled.
So far this essay has focused on the attributes that betray the post-modern tendencies of the album. And, outwardly, the album favors the traits identified by Hassan as Post-Modern vs. Modern: destabilizing, itinerant, mutated. Neonism advertises itself as an album of appearances or, perhaps more to the point, phantom images. But for all of Solefald’s anarchy, several moments on the album suggest a shattering of irony, a fault line where the sincere heart of the band rolls back the tide against the ironic strategies that are used throughout the album. In these moments do we find that synthesis of the Modern and the Post-Modern, the genuine love of poetry and beauty set against the mischief of play.
There is, of course, precedent for this sort of behavior. Novels such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds both contain passages of earnest, poetic beauty, couched within ironic and complex frameworks. In these novels, the authors pursue styles that favor distortion and ambiguity, actively – perhaps, aggressively – avoiding the languor of moral instruction and traceable narrative. And, in doing so, the authors often thwart the potential for poetic effusion. As Edmund Wilson remarks in his survey of Modern writing, Axel’s Castle, “Ulysses suffers from an excess of design rather than from a lack of it.” He goes on to note that, in instances throughout the novel, “Joyce has half buried his story under the virtuosity of his technical style.”[iv] So, too, is At Swim Two Birds a work that prioritizes form and style, although O’Brien’s writing goes even further than Joyce’s in its eagerness to abandon narrative. As is the case with Neonism, At Swim invests itself in the concealment of meaning, hedging against the expectations and desires of the reader. And as Solefald does with its music, O’Brien’s novel buries narratives within narratives, forms within forms, often in competition with each other, resulting in a polyglot network of associations and barely-governed mayhem. The novel’s labyrinthine structure depends on the use of multiple narrative voices, including the voice of the mad king, Sweeney (from the Irish folk tale, Buile Suibhne). Sweeney’s lunatic – though inspired – musings create a fracture between the ironic/parodic tone of the novel and the author’s un-ironic love of language. It must be noted, however, that one of the novel’s most lyrically-volcanic passages is conveyed via the principal narrator and is inspired by Sweeney:
Thereafter when the hosts clashed and bellowed like stag-herds and gave
three audible world-wide shouts till Sweeney heard them and their hollow
reverberations in the sky-vault, he was beleaguered by an anger and a
darkness, and fury and fits and frenzy and fright-fraught fear, and he was
filled with a restless tottering unquiet and with a disgust for the places that
he knew and with a desire to be where he never was, so that he was
palsied of hand and foot and eye-mad and heart-quick and went from the
curse of Ronan bird-quick in craze and madness from the battle.[v]
In this passage, the tone of O’Brien’s prose becomes so sweeping, so lyrical, that it all but extinguishes the bitter, though playful, parody of the rest of the novel. Note the unconscious, seamless flow of the passage, as well as the fierce alliteration of the line “fury and fits and frenzy and fright-fraught fear.” The narrator becomes so engaged in these lyrical flights that his prose develops organically, reading more like the “extempore effusions” of which Wordsworth writes.[vi]
The attentive listener will likely encounter a similar collapse of generic irony throughout the knotty maze of Neonism. One bit of evidence can be found in album closer, “The New Timelessness,” in which, near the beginning of the song (:40), the band digs into a heaving, mid-paced death metal riff. It is one of the only unadorned moments on the album, built out of nothing more than guitars, drums, and bass, sweat and physicality, a savage daydream. You can imagine the members’ eyes rolling back in their heads, lost in the intoxicating death metal of their youth. Whereas much of the album wrangles its power from the ironic play between surface and depth, the superimposition of styles and the dexterous navigation through them, this passage confirms its power through blunt force. To that end, this moment of unapologetic cruelty gives the listener pause. Its stark force – on an album defined by nested sounds and themes – reveals a band willing to shed its outer skins and lay bare its true, beating heart.
Another example can be found in the album’s sixth track, “Omnipolis.” The song begins with the kind of minefield rhythms that punctuate much of the album, but soon the nerves relax and the band settles into a loping 6/8 groove, where they remain for the better part of the song. At the 1:24 mark, Lazare deploys one of the album’s most dulcet melodies, melismatic, in characteristic style, but particularly immediate. This melody is succeeded by a sweeping, keyboard-driven passage, which, in the 20/20 hindsight of 2020, anticipates the influence Lazare would exert on Borknagar’s 2000 masterpiece, Quintessence. The detour taken at 2:14, a 3/4 waltz built on airy keyboards and a gentle beat, widens the textural spectrum of the piece without disrupting its flow. When the tempo once again picks up, the stereo field explodes with arcing guitar and keyboard melodies, which abut though never quarrel, resulting in a web of vivid harmonies, like the latticework color-burst of a New Year’s Eve night sky. I do not intend to insult the reader’s wits by describing the song, passage-by-passage. Rather, I think it pertinent to trace the song’s path, because, unlike the pieces that surround it, “Omnipolis” surrenders to its own beauty, and its makers seem too rapt by the results to tamper with it.
Throughout the album, the members Solefald show themselves to be high-powered artists, capable of bending music to suit their whims. And in postmodernist fashion – such that an interdisciplinary swath of tendencies can be distilled into a “fashion” – Solefald favors the ironic manipulation of sounds and words, the collision of rival values. In this regard, we must recognize Solefald as a very deliberate band, a band conscious of its own cleverness and its ability to surprise at will. But some of the album’s most stunning moments result from the breakdown of self-conscious style, in which the band prostrates itself before its own deep-seated feelings of longing and nostalgia and wonder. And somewhere between the Chanel-in-Hell fantasy of “CK II Chanel N” and primitive surge of the aforementioned passage in “The New Timelessness” do we arrive at the reconciliation between play and purpose, romantic longing and Dadaist irreverence.
Neonism is not without its faults. At times, Solefald’s curiosity gets the best of it and, in spite of its highly self-conscious approach, the music has the effect of a band thinking out loud. But it’s precisely its flaws and occasional messiness that make Neonism such a remarkable album. Viewed against the faceless, industry-standard metal albums that have been churned out over the last 10 years, Neonism is distinguished by its bravery and willingness to fail spectacularly. More often than not, Solefald’s aim is true. The record sums up the most foolish hopes of nineties metal, its promise, its genius for assimilation, the progress imperative that, in the dim light of today, seems no longer to have meaning. When this album was released, it was seen a bold and flippant challenge to metal’s conservative factions, But the currents have shifted. Looking back on the album now, it could be argued that Neonism is, instead, one of metal’s most optimistic gestures.
[i] Hassan, Ihab. The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature. Madison: Wisconsin UP, 1982.
[ii] Wagner, Jeff “Solefald: Brash Bits” Metal Maniacs, January 2000
[iii]Baudrillard, Jean Selected Writings, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988
[iv]Wilson, Edmond Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930, New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931
[v]O’Brien, Flann At Swim Two Birds, London, UK: Longman Green and Co., 1939
[vi]Wordsworth, William “Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg,” London, UK: Longman, 1835