I generally make no effort to choose background music based on my mood; rather, it stems from what I wish my mood to be in the ensuing moments. It might seem a roundabout way of saying that, truly, I do make such decisions based on my state of mind at any given moment, but that is, I think, simplifying the reality of the situation — which is, that the state of mind I’m shooting for is not necessarily the direct opposite of what I’m currently thinking and feeling, and so has no bearing on the latter.
The other morning, in the shower before work, I put on Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” because I wanted to approach the day with an easy-going, measured frame of mind, and also because I’m a perpetual nine-year-old who always wants it to be Christmas. But hey, I listen to the Pogues for the same reason, so there might just be a few frayed wires in my brain — in case you didn’t already know.
I needed to type all of that to get to the fact that I’m listening to Inter Arma’s beautiful, bleak, iron-sharpens-iron masterpiece “Sky Burial” while trying to make sense of this whole Michael Brown fiasco. If I didn’t still depend on the 40 bucks a week I make for this column, I’d simply quote the Democratic Republic of the Congo entry from The Onion’s World Atlas — “F***. F***. F*** the world. F*** the f***ing world.” — but, the real world being what it is, here I am, and here we are.
We seem to keep meeting this way: young black man shot and killed by a white police officer — or, y’know, white neighborhood watch volunteer with a god complex — after which the young black man is besmirched in the conservative press by certain unsavory aspects of his life coming to light, even though he didn’t do anything to deserve getting shot to death in cold blood. That’s a convoluted sentence, but if we don’t want to keep reading it, something’s got to change.
Oh yeah, Inter Arma. They’re from Richmond, Virginia, and exhibit this creepy, soulful, elemental-by-way-of-nature-taking-revenge-on-concrete sort of vibe that seems tailor-made for Neurot Recordings, and only slightly less appropriate for their actual label, Relapse. Their tracks, scorched-earth and soothing by turns, segue into one another like seasons in a temperate climate zone. You only realize you’re on to the next one when you’re three or four minutes deep into it and, by that time, you’re reined in by a heady composite of quadratic mathematics, melting ice caps and haymakers crafted from pure distortion. Guitar heroism, as on “The Long Road Home” sporadically rears, but typically serves as a respite only so lengthy as to accentuate the maelstrom.
Why is this an appropriate soundtrack to the Michael Brown saga? On the surface, each one is a mess: Inter Arma seem to not be able to decide between grind-core, black metal or shoegaze, and so feel compelled to stir it all together and hope that what comes out the other end is greater than the sum of its reluctant parts.
The Brown situation, likewise, provokes utter disbelief and disorientation when first encountered. It seems like déjà vu, like a skipping record in the house of a family too lazy to lift the needle, so familiar and yet so alien that we scarce know how to react.
This is a common attribute of great art and great tragedy, the instigation of confusion, of pure, roiling emotion. To properly absorb it, to properly dissect and understand it, however, you have to spend some time with it, no matter how damaging to your eardrums, psyche, emotional state or blood pressure it may yet prove to be. The problem with trying to approach each one of these things in a similar fashion — cold, calculated analysis — is that one yields comprehension, while the other yields further outrage.
We shoot for context. It helps us compartmentalize the world, to make sense of what goes on around us, whether for entertainment, survival or whatever. When I research and dissect the aural, architectural history of Inter Arma, I find traces of Neurosis, Converge, Isis, Cult of Luna and a new wave of environmental U.S. black metal. This helps — it secures for me new reference points, new ways to navigate the market when it comes to deciding which bands are worth my time and money.
Context, with regards to Michael Brown, the Ferguson police force, Ferguson citizens and the conservative media, is useless. It is an echo in a vacuum, impossible and yet tragically so. It is disgustingly familiar, depressingly predictable. Brown, a young man fatally shot in cold blood, acts as avatar of an unforgivable national history — embodied by Rodney King and Trayvon Martin, among others — laced with latent racism and the emboldening that manifests itself as a result of the lack of culpability in crimes like these. The shooting itself, the militarization of the Ferguson police force, the threatening of reporters by Ferguson protesters — this chain of events taken on its own merits is impossible to understand, and is only given context by the sheer fact of its frequency, a depressing and sobering realization.
I could call for a fearless, national self-inventory; a political crucifixion of the officer/murderer; a one-by-one bitch-slapping of every conservative pundit who dares demonize Michael Brown or a president who, despite some policy flaws that have become fairly apparent in recent months, has called for serious investigation into the matter. Will it act, even if enacted, as a preventative, or simply send up white smoke?
A reversal occurs: I’m at a loss to explain what it is, exactly, I’m aiming for here. I know, however, what I’m trying to escape: a world in which this is predictable, in which the outright, repercussion-less murder of another young black man is not woven into the very mathematical fabric of our existence. I seek naivety, I think.