Ambitious and multi-layered, Theologian‘s latest effort comprises a disorienting force, the kind that only late industrial music, in all of its transgressive glory, can muster. Under the theme of sainthood as an avenue for criticism of the Catholic Church ethos, you will find here most of the now familiar tropes of the genre, channelled through noise, ambient, and power electronics: bodies in sadistic submission (as the pain of the noise we endure and enjoy), the reflective deviancy born of iconoclasm (the haziness of ambient’s deconstruction of musical conventions), and its consequent extension into a hateful act of punishment (the beats at the heart of sheer feedback crackles, pulling down everything around them to remain both bare and impure). At two and a half hours long, Pain of the Saints was not made for distracted listening – it demands to be heard, and it demands the kind of attention that lets its energy shock every neuron into a trance-like state. In many ways, it is a straightforward inversion of that it targets, grinding a ritualistic sense of taboo-breaking into the very skin.
This is how the beats and audible voices betray a humanism that characterizes the sheer anger of the album as protest, not as misanthropy. As I listened to the album and read the press release, in which Lee Bartow describes it as an “Anti-Theist manifesto” (with capital letters and all) that attempts to re-appropriate the suffering of saints with the aim to question Catholic values, I was reminded of E.M. Cioran’s Tears and Saints (1937). In it, the Romanian author makes a comparable diatribe in which he pictures the pain of sainthood as the key of a Christianity oppressive to life, to the vitality of an earthly movement that aspires to the stars, the “deepening of appearances” and not the colorless “sickness of depths” that the clouds of saintliness engender. “I know no other music than that of tears”, he says, “Born out of the loss of paradise, music gives birth to the symbols of this loss: tears.” As explosive as Theologian’s music is, it is meant for intimacy, for a delicate sensuality that mourns the pain of others in the constant returns to melodic passages. Cioran’s rant leads directly to an absolute negation, but Theologian’s sprawling work opts instead for the dependency between transgression and taboo, a relationship that ultimately works to reaffirm the latter but keeps humanity at its core. In the liminality of its bluntness (a power that is to be enjoyed while powerless), Pain of the Saints‘ discourse is as essentially adolescent as Cioran’s – a brutal assault born of tears, carrier of a sadness and a fury that extricates suffering from an image of perfection to give it back its passion, its uselessness, its despair. The pain of saints is reduced to an a-historical oppressive caricature; like all adolescent rants, it is not as sophisticated as it thinks it is, but it is one hell of a listen.
Thus, the music, without the strings of Bartow’s words above it, can be much more subtle, much more imaginative than what would seem at first. For example, it is full of carefully constructed reversals of aural representations of heaven: choruses are really just machines, the voice that shines through their oily light a piercing indictment that merges with hisses and electronic feedback to reveal a spiteful cruelty. There’s a confrontation in every pulse, a lengthy pummelling of the senses that forcefully opens itself up to a multiplicity of interpretations that cannot be exhausted by its politics – subjection, physical harm, and other recurring themes of industrial music mingle with the thought of what are basically hopeful representations of infinite negation, of death. It strains with affirmation that is not really hidden, a source of paradoxical reverse mysticism that finds, like Cioran did, a void in everything, one that he thought should be filled with hopeless beauty but that Theologian does so instead with what it conceives of as truth. This truth is, in the words that back up the album, a straightforward (and tired) criticism, but in the music it is many other things as well, a provocation into thinking about a love of death.
If you are a regular listener of extreme music, there will be nothing here to shock you, but it will make you think, and it’s more than worth your listening time. Take away from it as many things as you can – claim it for yourself, for your own mourning, your own suffering. Misuse it, mistreat it, pervert its meanings to shine on it the light (or dark) it cannot reach by itself: make it grow with you, because on its own it is reductive and flatly polemical, but perhaps when it is violently taken away from its premise it will be at its most complex, at its most painfully enjoyable. (David Murrieta)