|Fun fact: Despite the fact that Seeming is the single most WicDiv|
band ever (no really), I have thus far failed utterly both at getting
Kieron Gillen to listen to Seeming and at getting Alex to read
The Wicked & The Divine.
The usual disclaimers when I talk about stuff made by Alex apply: he’s one of my closest friends, and there’s nothing on this record that I haven’t previously heard in various demos. That said, I do not like Seeming because I’m friends with the frontman and songwriter; I like Alex because he makes some of the best fucking music I have ever heard. Which is to say that this is an unabashedly partisan review, but an entirely sincere one.
The crown jewel is the title track, “Worldburners Unite,” offered both in the “Pandemic” mix that serves as the lead track and video and in the mix used on the 7″ vinyl single. The former trends to the goth/industrial roots, serving as a more straightforward continuation of the project begun with Madness and Extinction, while the latter is a rollicking piece of celtic punk with some seriously hardcore shredding bagpipes. It’s also just flat-out one of my favorite songs ever, which is probably why I’ve been using its first line, “see the tower through the trees give way to smoky memories,” as a Tumblr tag for over a year now, and why its second line was the title of the debut entry of the Super Nintendo Project.
Anchoring both versions is a chorus that is, under the hood, a good old call and response protest song, except with a sprawlingly nihilistic vision: “the letters and the law the meaning and the cause: worldburners unite. And I’m not young; I’m closer to death than birth, and one thing that I’ve learned is that we’ve got no place here on Earth.” The two verses, each with distinct structures, double down on this: “everywhere we go is somewhere visited by someone. The madness here is circular; the madness here is us,” and the glorious growl that opens the second verse: “You are not a hero. You are not a god. You are no protagonist advancing any plot.” A protest song as imagined by Thomas Ligotti.
Nihilism, of course, gets something of a bad rap in the world, and it’s a topic we’ve grappled with here, particularly in my debate with Vox Day. And in many ways, “Worldburners Unite” is the most perfect case for its appeal and function imaginable. It takes punk rebellion to its natural endpoint – burn down literally everything – but does so through ruthless fealty to the primal scream that underlies the entire punk lineage. There’s no greater musical pleasure to be had this summer than cranking your car speakers and driving down suburban streets spitting nihilist venom at the asphalt itself.
Actually, that’s basically the content of two more of the tracks. The first is “Give Yourself to Fire,” a glowering, bass-heavy love song from an arsonist to the woman whose house he plans to set on fire and burn with. It’s haunting and unsettling, long on seedy glamour that’s routinely and artfully betrayed by Alex’s vocal and the glowering bass line, both of which betray the feral madness of the narrator’s vision. The second, meanwhile, is “The City Sleeps,” a cover of the 1991 MC 900 Ft. Jesus track, also about an arsonist, which strips out the groove of the original, so that the narrator is no longer a figure of puckish bravado. Instead, he becomes a figure simultaneously haunting the psyche of a crepuscular city and haunted by its darkness, his words enveloped by an ambient soundscape that gives way, improbably, to a sample of Dylan Thomas reading “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.”
This last fact highlights a key point about the record: for all the joy it takes in contemplating the radical and transformative properties of fire, it does not neglect the terror of fire, and it is not some sort of crass and unthinking endorsement of burning shit down for the sake of it. Unlike Madness and Extinction, where the confessional mode was never far from the surface, Worldburners is a record of personae and characters, most of which are disturbing and alluring in equal measures, and some of which are openly ridiculous. Take, for instance, “Boats on Fire,” a danceable industrial number about literally eating the rich to gain their power, which resolves with a glorious crescendo to nowhere. It’s in no way a repudiation of the anti-capitalist furor that animates it, but it is a genuinely funny critique of the pathetic futility of overly simple radicalism. (“Boats on Fire” is one of two tracks in which the band overtly pays its debts to industrial music, the other being “My Body is Always Screaming,” which is for industrial screaming what “Worldburners Unite” is for punk rebellion, with all that implies. Very much the record’s “not for everyone” track, that one.)
This sense of humor – a relatively new front for the band, which had previously only really dabbled in it with its (admittedly hilarious) “Which House?” on their outtakes album Silent DiscoVery – is welcome, not least because of the final track, “Light a Fire,” a two-and-a-half minute doo-wop song from the perspective of someone who, having fallen in love with the firefighter who saved them from a previous fire, continues setting their house on fire in an attempt to bring their lover back. (“I strike a match and call for help / but they keep sending someone else,” Alex notes mournfully.) Followed by five minutes of epic electronica representing the outcome of this touching love story. Be sure to stick around for the melodically agonized screaming as the narrator burns to death, as it’s terribly catchy, and fun to sing along with in the car.
Which I believe just leaves “Holy Fire” to discuss, which is a good one to close with, given that it, along with “Worldburners Unite,” is probably my favorite thing on the record. For the most part, the song is a wistfully mournful piano ballad, although as with many Seeming songs there is eventually a twist. But what’s more important and more interesting than any simple technical description of the song’s genre is its its content: it’s a wistfully mournful piano ballad about spiritual enlightenment. “Stay human said the dusk / stay human said the wind / but I stared into the sun / now I’ve seen beyond the end,” the song’s narrator explains in the first verse, before breaking into the heartbreaking chorus: “the sky multiplies / and subdivides / the atoms in between / I leave behind / the lie so serene / now I can’t deny / the holy fire / better left unseen.” While in the background what sounds (and will eventually be revealed to be far more than) a strangely broken and haunted heavenly choir rages.
It seems almost banal to point out that this is not a standard subject for a pop song, but it nevertheless seems crucial. The idea of rendering the human search for knowledge and understanding as a source of horror is, of course, not a new one so much as it’s the topic of every Lovecraft story ever. But this is rather the point: for all that these are major philosophical themes animating vast stretches of what’s interesting in art and culture, it’s tough to argue that cosmic horror is well-served by pop music. Sure, there’s loads of people who have thrown a Cthulhu reference into a song, usually badly, but pop music that does not so much quote Lovecraft as try to track down whatever audient void he stared into and bind its essence within a piano ballad? That’s something special.
Or at least, it’s the crux of it for me. This is pop music about topics I care about, which is not really a category that includes breakups and braggadocio anymore. It’s a category that includes the aesthetic possibilities of nihilism, bodily alienation, explorations of madness, critiques of the rhetoric of anti-capitalism, and, especially over the last couple of months, explorations of the idea of spiritual enlightenment and transcendent knowledge as a form of horror. This isn’t the sort of thing Apple Music serves up playlists for. Hip-hop tracks for a morning run, sure. The aestheticization of nihilism, not so much.
This risks making the record sound unbearably pretentious, of course. But I want to stress again the category of “pop.” Because this is how Seeming works. It’s not just the soaringly ambitious philosophical and aesthetic agenda that drives the band. It’s the fact that they have really good hooks. The point of the record is as much the crescendo that is the final chorus of “Worldburners Unite,” or the mad buzzing of the bass in “Give Yourself to Fire” as it is the ideas. What works about songs like “Holy Fire” and “Light a Fire” isn’t just their high concepts, but the pleasure they take in their structure and tone – the contrast between the start of “Holy Fire” (a simple, light rhythm line from a shaker) and the end (thunderous madness). Put another way, the title track proves that “searingly nihilistic vision” and “good for your morning run” turn out not to be oppositional categories.
Which is why it works. It is not enough to contemplate the philosophical possibilities of nihilism, or to note that unwavering certainty about the fundamental nature of the universe is, historically, not an intellectual position characterized by its positive consequences. Seeming breaks these ideas open and wires their internals up into soundscapes and pop hooks that transform them from ideas into pleasures, with all the seduction and danger that implies.
Should we burn the entire world down, cleansing the planet of the awful stain that is language and consciousness, so that at last we can be free of the sadistic tyranny that is ourselves? I don’t know. But there exists a stretch of three minutes and twenty-seven seconds in which there is nothing I want more.