Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The harsh unholy bible of Manic Street Preachers

If yesterday Bob Marley showed us how to find hope in the hopeless, and an affirmation for revolution and survival, there arguably could be no greater argument for the noes than the music I’ve been listening to today – Welsh alt-rock band Manic Street Preachers, and their bleakest of the bleak 1994 release, The Holy Bible.

Here, the grim side of life is laid out for us, austere, unprotected, uncovered other than here and there where it might occasionally be scantily dressed in anger or cynicism. But it’s clothing that is ragged and worn and, in any event, only draws even more attention to the music’s overall nakedness.

The album was recorded not long before the disappearance of the band’s lyricist and guitarist, Richey Edwards – a disappearance that, fifteen years later, is still unexplained, and has been accompanied by all the usual theories and sightings. But there is little doubt that Edwards was severely depressed at the time of his disappearance and certainly these songs give voice to that depression. Ands it’s not just an internal despair at a private, personal plight – but a despair at a world that destroys and dehumanises everyone who inhabits it.

It’s not easy to write, or even perform, music to words that are sodden in this much despair, without resorting to clichés or melodrama but here, with Manic Street Preachers’ post-punk hard-edged rock, their barbed, razor-sharp riffs, their dark and driving bass, their acute sense of how tone, tonality and emotion all relate to each other, the music becomes the real til-death-us-do-part partner of the lyrics’ nihilism, like the way the guitar’s melody line twists and contorts, winces, to the desperately bleak words of ‘Of Walking Abortion’; or the creeping, sinister serial killer’s riffs of ‘Archives of Pain’; the descending harmonies of self-loathing in ‘Mausoleum’; or the apocalyptic bassline as the holocaust is mourned in ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’.

But all of this comes to you via the usual trappings of hard rock – loud, heavy guitars; harsh, hoarse vocals; and thumpingly strong beats. It’s as if The Holy Bible might have wanted to be just good, solid rock – music that could have been something great to dance to in the heavier, harder hours of a night of dancing – but the lyrics always send it in other, less certain, less secure, directions. And so that’s where it goes.

The music of The Holy Bible certainly has an angry, slashing edge to it, sometimes frighteningly so; but it is also music that has at times almost fortified itself against the anguish of the story it tells, as if its message has been carved in cold steel.

Listen, for example, to the album’s centrepiece ‘4st 7lb’ an almost matter-of-fact statement of anorexia, starting off with a punk-like energy, frenetic, furious, and yet vulnerable, until suddenly, halfway through, the tone and the tempo are taken down a notch or two, as if the blood is being drained from music as much as from the person telling its tale. It creates a chilling effect and yet there’s a nonchalance in the way it’s done, as if dying of malnutrition while you’re walking along the streets is the most natural, normal thing in the world.

The songs are each ushered in with a little snippet of dialogue – usually something from radio or television – giving the music something of the feel of a commentary, which, in a way, it is: this is the world seen through the darkened eyes of depression, told by the music as if it was reading the daily news in hell, sombre and solemn, but never sentimental.

But don’t think for a moment that this music has sublimated its emotions – rather, it’s the music of emotions that have been rubbed raw, emotions that show blisters and scabs and open wounds instead of tears.

The Holy Bible is severe, savage music and, every time you listen to it, you find it has somehow submerged itself into the depths a little bit more than when you heard it last. It’s an unflattering view of humanity, but sometimes music has to take us to those dark and dismal places because they are, after all, a part of life – or at least a part of the experience of it.

Manic Street Preachers, beset, as they ultimately were, by their own tragedy, have created here an amazingly powerful and persuasive picture of those dark places – unsympathetic, unembellished, but the sort of picture which, with all its darkness and shadows, is sketched in incredible detail.

Not all that unlike Kurt Cobain’s last will and testament in Nirvana’s In Utero, (see 22nd August, 2009) Richey Edwards has left a farewell note here in The Holy Bible, told through the uncompromising music of his bandmates – gloomy and gruesome but, even so, a towering musical achievement.

No comments:

Post a Comment