Thursday, December 12, 2013

Disfiguring the Goddess

It's rare that you'll find me listening to non-cold weather music in cold weather. When the temperatures drop, I like to crank a lot of symphonic metal, or black metal, or power metal, or folk metal...or any genre that combines those, really. Wintersun, Nightwish, Within Temptation, Amon Amarth, Eluveitie - this is the music that accompanies me into the biting frost mainly because so much of it talks about the biting frost anyway. For me, it's as much a part of the holiday season as Christmas music - and it feels just as weird to hear it during warmer temps (which in Texas is most of the year).

So it comes as a surprise - even to me - that what I'm really enjoying right now is the sickening slam of Disfiguring the Goddess. A one-man act courtesy of Cameron Argon (who also produces curiously different music under the moniker Big Chocolate), Disfiguring the Goddess is among some of the most brutal and hard-hitting music IN THE UNIVERSE.

Haha! Screw you, READING!

I had been eagerly anticipating his latest release - Deprive - for as long as he had been teasing tracks from the new album on his Facebook page. Then Cameron went and did something pretty damn cool: he released a second album on the same day entitled Black Earth Child.

Normally with these album reviews, I like to take Pros and Cons point-for-point where possible. But slam metal is one of those subgenres you either love or hate. It's not the kind of genre with enough diversity for squeamish listeners to cherry pick one or two songs they like while not caring for the rest, unlike more colorful subgenres like progressive metal. Your brain either craves these anthems of the underworld dredged up through the graves of the unjustly slain, or it doesn't. And I'll be the first to admit that a lot of slam metal "sounds the same," but Disfiguring the Goddess is one of those artists that has managed to exist completely within the genre's confines while somehow still transcending them.

For those of you who come to this blog to occasionally learn more about metal out of morbid curiosity, allow me to jump right into this edition of Metal 101:

Death metal is a fairly large subgenre of metal that houses a number of subgenres in itself. One of those subgenres is "slam," so named for the characteristic musical device that defines much of its sound. Slam still uses the guttural and unintelligibly terrifying vocals that characterize much of death metal, and other ear marks of the genre (blast beats, for example) can be found in spades as well. But again it's these slams that set it apart from, say, deathcore. "Slams" are simply sequences of palm-muted transitions that wander around (usually) the first four frets of a heavily down-tuned guitar. So you know that deep chug-chug-chug sound that you hear in a lot of metal? When that chugging stays in one place and counts a rhythm in time with the drums, that's usually called a breakdown. When that chugging wanders up and down and all around - sometimes with the drums synchronized to it and sometimes not - that is how a new slam is born.

As with any genre label, it's dangerous to get too attached to those definitions.

From The Heavy Metal Handbook: Chapter 5 - "How To Not Be A Dick About This Music"

So what's up with Disfiguring the Goddess? What makes this guy so special, huh?

First off: that's a super awesome name, no? Up a few notches on the death-metal-bandname scale from the likes of Morbid Angel, but still below the overtly-intended-as-shock-value Aborted Fetus. And with a name like that, you'd probably guess that Cam was an imposing persona, evincing homicidal rage and terrifying inner turmoil.

He disfigured a LOT of goddesses that day.

Secondly, Cam's vocals are the definition of brutal. I don't know if he uses any effects or electronically enhances them in any way, but frankly I don't care even if he does. The raw brutality and aggression of the sounds coming out of his vocals cords just light up something in my brain that defies explanation. Imagine if the T-Rex from Jurassic Park was behind the mic, chunks of the lawyer's khaki short-shorts still dangled from its jaws.

Last but not least, the music. Oh, such sweet sounds of savagery... Deprive and Black Earth Child both showcase an increasing level of polish and mastery of the production process that wasn't present earlier in his work. His first two releases - Circle of Nine and Sleeper - progressively improved on what was an appropriately dark and chaotic sound. After all, death metal isn't normally a genre overly concerned about making sure the minutia of instrumentation comes across. The whole point of death metal is to be unintelligible and antagonistic on every level, even for its practitioners and fans. But as I've mentioned before on this blog, for better or worse, I like production values in my music. So I appreciated Circle of Nine and even enjoyed Sleeper when I was in the mood for something almost comically extreme, but I wouldn't go so far as to call them favorites. With the coming of Deprive and Black Earth Child however, Cam has managed to take the production values through the roof while still maintaining a relentless musical assault on the listener.

Black Earth Child
Elements he hinted at in Sleeper now take a greater amount of the spotlight (though not so much as to be distracting), like the choral arrangements that weave their way in and out of the chaos of "Death's Head Mask" or "Home of the Dollmaker." At once haunting and epic, they bring to these songs - otherwise fantastic examples of the merciless qualities that endeared me to Disfiguring the Goddess in the first place - aspects of sophistication and theatricality that I crave in my music. There are nods to Middle Eastern acoustic instruments with "Industrial Quarter," and the mournful string arrangements that bring "Old Man" to its conclusion are among my favorite moments of Disfiguring the Goddess's entire musical career. Ethereal soundscapes creep into "Suffer Square" that immediately transport the listener into some cosmic void before hurtling them back before a firing squad armed with nail guns and chainsaws. And in a similar vein with "Old Man," "Phantasmal Tempest" slowly decays into an ominous ocean of brass-like instruments, accented by a choir-like sound effect that makes the song sound like some ancient portent of doom. And those are just some of the highlights - in between and all around these more experimental moments are mountains of breakneck speed and ferocity, valleys of murky growls and sledgehammer guitar work, and every dark and disturbing sound that ever made you fall head-over-heels in love with this grisly genre in the first place.

And by releasing two albums in one day, he's managed to overcome my major gripe with his music thus far: the run-time. Sleeper clocked in at just over 20 minutes. And by itself, Deprive is even shorter: a measly 17 minutes and change. But tack on the 24+ minutes of Black Earth you've got a stew going!

It's a testament to just how good this music is that it doesn't have many "haters." Pick a metal band, any metal band, and go check out their Facebook or the comments section on their YouTube videos. It's practically an extended tantrum interrupted by peaks of enthusiasm and joy. It's like most metalheads these days can't enjoy one band unless they first unload all the things they don't like about it, and I'll admit I've been guilty of this too. But check out Disfiguring the Goddess's Facebook and/or YouTube and/or any other social media presence - the voice of the hater is but a whisper, if ever breathed at all. Cam has achieved a feat almost impossibly rare in the metal scene; he's changed. His music has evolved, by degrees but still noticeably, and he seems to have actually gained approval in the process. If you're not a big metalhead, you may not realize just how impressive that is - headbangers are notoriously fickle and difficult to please. At once they're condemning a band for "too much 0-0-0-0" and then in the same breath cursing them for "not sounding enough like ________" where that big blank is usually their debut album or some other release deemed more "brootal" and by extension, better. The message is as confusing as it is hypocritical: "be different but also exactly the same."
He disfigured even MORE goddesses on this day.

Disfiguring the Goddess has charted its own course throughout its musical career, and Cam seems content to make the music he wants to make no matter what his fans/anti-fans might say. And by some miracle he's managed to evolve slam into something a bit more experimental and varied while still preserving the gore-drenched heart at its core. I'm still stumped as to how he's pulled that off yet still grown his fan base. But however he's managed to do it, my hat is off to him.

With these releases, Disfiguring the Goddess has officially become one of my all time favorite metal acts. If you've been wandering the aisles of your local record store, aimlessly searching for some new tunes with which to damage your hearing...wander no more! Deprive and Black Earth Child have cascades and avalanches of raptors wielding assault rifles swirling through Sharknadoes just waiting to devour you and spit you out the other end like so much eviscerated gristle.

And that, my friends, is the true meaning of Christmas.

Monday, December 9, 2013


I'm a bit late to this party, I know.

I've tried to make a habit of mostly reviewing new releases (with the exception of my Redbox Reports and Netflix Nuggets, of course) in the hopes of hoarding my own little pile of cyber-relevance. But every once in a while I see a movie or hear an album that gives me the blogging itch regardless of how long it's been since everyone else has already seen or heard it. Disney's latest - Frozen - is just such a movie.

If the box office numbers are any indicator, most of you are probably well ahead of me on this one by now; that's what I get for letting my blog collect a little dust. But with that in mind, I so thoroughly enjoyed Frozen on so many levels that I'll tell you right now I don't really have anything negative to say about it moving forward.

The story is refreshingly different and unique. Like a number of Disney films, Frozen takes its source material - "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen - and removes all the pesky creepiness and horror that characterizes a disturbing amount of "children's stories." (C'mon, Hans...your target audience is still afraid of the dark)

Princess Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) was born with a special gift; with just a wave her hand she can make snow and ice appear in dazzling and beautiful magic. After accidentally wounding her sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) with that magic, Elsa has to learn to keep her powers a secret - as her father tells her "Conceal, don't feel." When it comes time for Elsa to lead the country as queen, her powers have become too strong for her to conceal any longer and she unwittingly unleashes a devastating winter on all of her country. Ashamed and afraid, she retreats to the mountains in the hopes of protecting her kingdom - and her sister - from any further harm she might cause. But spirited Anna isn't so easily resigned, and resolves to bring her sister back. Along the way she teams up with the handsome Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his trusty reindeer Sven, in addition to Olaf - a dim-witted but warm-hearted snowman. But undoing the damage Elsa has caused is a greater challenge than either of them expects, and Frozen takes us through both of their struggles with narrative aplomb and musical magic.


Right off the bat, Frozen scores major points in my book for hitting all of the familiar (and in some ways, necessary) fairy tale beats without lapsing into cliche. There are princesses and princes, a royal ball, song-and-dance routines that flesh out character motivations and advance the story, anthropomorphic animals - the works. But instead of a pair of female leads who quickly fall into a competitive "good girl"/"bad girl" dynamic, Frozen develops Elsa and Anna in such a way as to bring the audience into their separate worlds at the same time. So while Elsa is doing vaguely villain-y things, we understand her motivations and sympathize with her defensive instincts. It's handled so deftly and subtly that you won't even notice unless you're actively looking for it; the stitches and seams in this story have been masterfully woven.

And this again is where Frozen might have otherwise faltered. Take the on-the-nose, unforgivably weak Cinderella 2: Dreams Come True - where Cindy says saccharine things like "Maybe it's time to start following your heart..." and the borderline bitch-ity boppity-boo: "I have to try this my way." (That's what the original Cinderella was missing - a little Limp Bizkit!) It was painfully obvious what that film was aiming for; trying to put some distance between itself and the whole damsel-in-distress routine and let her flourish on her own as a lead character. Great idea - abysmal execution. Frozen, on the other hand, hits that target dead center. At no point in the movie does Elsa or Anna have to fall back on "strong female character" stereotypes to get their point across or keep advancing the story.

And what's a good Disney movie without some good Disney music? In the tradition of older Disney Renaissance era films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, this movie does a fantastic job of reviving song-and-dance routines that don't put the rest of the film on hold. Towards the beginning of the film young Anna attempts to gain her sister's attention with the sweet-as-it-is-heartbreaking "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?" Skip ahead a few years and Anna is bursting with excitement for her sister's upcoming coronation ceremony in "For the First Time In Forever." But my personal favorite is Elsa's theme song, "Let It Go" - a simple but thrilling melody that brings Elsa through her shame and self-doubt into confidence and peace with her powers.

And on that note (pun intended), the voice acting and singing in this movie is pitch perfect (again, pun annoyingly intended). Kristen Bell's voice-work is an absolute joy; not only can she sing beautifully, but she works in all of these subtle vocal inflections and expressions that I didn't fully appreciate until I listened to the songs over and over again in my car. Seriously, her performance is perfect to a syllable. Idina Menzel has already proven her sing-acting chops in Wicked, and her approach is right at home in this film. Another hidden gem in this film is the snowman Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad), whose non-sequitur attempts to relate to his human counterparts offer up a good deal of this film's comedic value.


Frozen really doesn't fall short anywhere, at least not significantly. At one point Olaf performs his own song - "Summertime" - about his love for that time of year, without of course realizing the perils associated. The song stalls the film's momentum for a minute or two, but it's also such a beguilingly cute moment that holding it against the rest of the movie would just be silly.


As I mentioned before, I've had this soundtrack on repeat thanks to the glories of my Spotify subscription and returning to it has allowed me to appreciate just how much went into this movie. At first viewing, it's charming and delightful and infectiously sweet. These are all fine qualities, but they don't necessarily impress upon the viewer any aspect of depth or profundity. But when I listened to the opening song - a chorus-type piece that depicts a group of mountain men collecting ice blocks from a frozen lake - I realized that the lyrics to this song act as a kind of overture to the entire film:

Born of cold and winter air
And mountain rain combining,
This icy force both foul and fair,
Has a frozen heart worth mining 

It wouldn't be spoiling anything to say that these words very accurately describe how the movie treats Elsa, and the struggles she faces with her own "icy forces." And elsewhere in the song the chorus shouts "...Let it go!" Again, thematic overture and even a little musical foreshadowing - and we're not even 5 minutes into this lovely little film.

I've had a soft spot in my heart for those classic Disney movies for as long as I can remember, and I rarely go more than a week or so without belting out "A Part of Your World," "Be Our Guest," "Never Had A Friend Like Me", etc. during my commute or as a way to harass my dog Chewbacca before bedtime. So it's a real pleasure to have a fresh batch of Disney songs to add to that habit, and just in time for the cold weather. And with that in mind, I think Frozen will go down in history as another of the Disney "greats." Additionally I expect - with equal excitement - that Frozen will serve as a template for future films aiming to elevate their female characters above the cliches and stereotypes to which they've largely been confined, and it's about time.

Now if you'll excuse me, I don't think Chewie knows all the words to "Let it Go."