Vetoxa 3332, DD & CD album
$8.99 DD $12.33 CD
This bunch of raucous, abrasive noise-mongers from Oakland CA specifically describe their music as ‘queer death rock’. That raises a couple of issues as a genre label. The first is that given that the sound of this record is something that makes sense in an established set of musical practices, what is it about the sound that makes it specifically queer? I’m not talking about the lyrics here, which are delivered with the kind of approach that makes recourse to a lyric sheet a prerequisite for any form of judgement or analysis, but about the stylistic and textural qualities of the recorded sound, and I have to say there’s nothing about these aspects of It Gets Worse that make it sound any more or less queer than other comparable acts. The second is that ‘queer’ is an ambiguous term, one which suggests a political identity as much as a sexual one, and which, in its more theoretical applications at least, indicates a critique of the usual, dualistic straight/gay opposition; indeed, in some formulations to which I’ve been exposed, queer is an identity to which I, as a heterosexual man who self-identifies as an outsider on political and cultural terms, can feel a significant degree of alignment. The interesting point about all this being… that in that sense of ‘queer’, a great deal of counterculture music and other art could be seen to fit, irrespective of the sexual identities of its authors. Queer theory talks about ‘queering’ culture, in the same way that black metal theory talks about ‘blackening’ it; an important aspect of this, I would guess, is in highlighting and valorising ambiguities. It’s worth noting how little overt discourse exists around sexual identity in much of the musical counterculture, particularly around the noisy rock end of the spectrum, although it tends to de-emphasise the dominant hetero-normative iconography of the rock mainstream; in my experience of UK musical undergrounds, although I have met some individuals that identify as gay or queer, and although the social milieu appears to be supportive of them, there are very few bands that would describe themselves in those terms, or characterise their music using any term of sexual identity. Gay culture has usually appeared to take place in its own spaces, to its own soundtrack, on its own terms, very much on the basis of the rigid definitions of sexuality that queer theory challenges. I don’t know if Bitter Fruit have any links to the queercore scene, or whether they would situate themselves in a community of similar bands; as they’re in Oakland I can’t pop out to a gig and find out who they are sharing the bill with. What I can say is that, both in their sound, and in the titles and content of their songs, there is a spirit of celebratory transgression which is both infectious and entertaining.
There is melody in Bitter Fruit’s songs, but it is usually of a densely chromatic, threatening shade. Their textures are mordant rather than heavy, with an abrasive, rasping surface, and without the thickness and low-frequency emphasis that characterises most contemporary metal. In both of these characteristics there is some resemblance to classic Californian hardcore sounds, but It Gets Worse eschews the rapidity or rhythmically jagged manoeuvring that also characterises such music, cleaving instead to a persistent mid-tempo advance, that accumulates a kind of implacable momentum over the length of the album. Whatever the band’s creative intentions may be, they are going to roll right over us and continue on towards their destination, irrespective of the effect their music may have had on us. This sense of disregard extends to the lyrical delivery, in which the metre frequently confounds the sense, the diction is aggressively slurred and the timbre is such that the vocal becomes subsumed into the ensemble sound. This reinforces the physicality of the music, its address to the listening body, and its construction of a subjectivity founded in an erotic atavism that swallows sex and death whole, shitting them out in an ecstasy of trespass and transposition.
This is not to say that the lyrical texts are irrelevant to the meanings of the music, or that the affective musical meanings are in any way uncoupled from the denotational and metaphorical content. There are two principal, parallel themes: a criticality towards normative forces of identity formation, and an articulation of identities in positions of peripherality or externality that inoculate them against those forces. ‘Flowers’, for example, represents the violence and coercion of conformist demands on identity and social membership, while ‘Pathetic Narcissus’ attacks those that acquiesce willingly to mainstream narratives of social validation. ‘Saddlesore’ and ‘Serial’, conversely, produce outsider positions extreme enough to resist any form of mainstream appropriation or assimilation; the former song queers the culturally constructed notion of romantic love, declaring, with sneering indifference, ‘I rode down that road before/ and all I got was saddlesore’. The majority of the songs combine elements of these two approaches to some degree, but there are two in particular that effectively unify the thematic threads of the album: one is ‘Daddylust’, which vividly connects political and sexual submission, in a critique which neither condemns nor celebrates the fetishisation of pain and humiliation. The other is ‘Rainbow’, whose take on marginalisation (the coercive counterpart to voluntary peripherality) articulates and encompasses both the complicity of the individual in the mechanisms of their own oppression and their construction of tenuous marginal identities within that process: ‘we can buy a boy or do corporate pride/ or suck dick to survive’. This capacity to encompass and maintain the unresolved tension between antagonistic forces strikes me as the creative heart of It Gets Worse, with its relentless, steady pace and the persistent aural abrasion of its musical textures.
It Gets Worse is a live album, and I find it hard to imagine a studio recording representing Bitter Fruit’s creative practice as effectively. Theirs is a performative identity, a socially articulated position that makes sense as resistance, as contrast, as difference; the careful crafting of an unsituated soundworld would hardly produce the right space in which to enact their confrontational collective selfhood. The album is a grinding, furious storm of physicality which invites the listener either to enter into its ritual trance or to fuck off; the band do not want you to stand at the back of the gig with your hands in your pockets, and tap your foot with a knowing, ironic smile filling the aperture in your hipster beard. As suggested by the flayed embraces and insouciant suicide depicted on the cover, they want as much from you as they are offering; they are creating a space in which outsider identity is up for grabs, and if you are not going to join them in that project you have no business listening to their music – nor are you likely to derive much pleasure from hearing it. If you are a willing celebrant in their rite of constructive violence, you won’t need telling to check your inhibitions at the door, however; this is the sound of drug-addled, blood-spattered, sexual celebration, and its intensity is enough to loosen the straightest of laces.