Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bagchus / Van Drunen: This one true thing

A toast to the parties that have occupied so many of my listening hours in recent weeks. Sirs Bob Bagchus and Martin Van Drunen, a drummer and vocalist, respectively—second and third from left in the pic above—and principal members of the Dutch extreme-metal band Asphyx. The pair also play together in Grand Supreme Blood Court, which includes former Asphyx member Eric Daniels. The details are a bit confusing, but don't worry; this is a unified body of work.

Here are ten of my favorite tracks from the (by my count) five studio albums these two have made together thus far: two early-’90s Asphyx records, The Rack and Last One on Earth; two post-reunion Asphyx records—Death…the Brutal Way and Deathhammer—which I generally like better than the original two LPs, as good as those are; and one GSBC record.

I've written here before about the appeal of Asphyx. I don't have a whole lot to add to that. For me, the pleasure of this music has to do with an integrity, a phenomenally strong inner compass, the equivalent of a tractor beam that leads you along this one narrow aesthetic track for the entirety of your creative life. As any fan of death metal, or I guess I should say this strain of death metal, the one that's about paring ideas down rather than stacking them up—it's an elite crew, maybe only these guys and Obituary who do it in such a supremely satisfying way—could tell you, it's not about the quantity of ideas. It's about the weight you put behind your statements, the gravity of your stride.

There are moments here—like 2:07 into "Bloodswamp," when the tempo downshifts into that mean-ass swagger, or 1:40 into "The Herald," where, well, basically the exact same thing happens, except that the resulting tempo is just…that…much…slower and more agonized—that make me so happy I want to mutate, devolve, in the manner described here. It's about getting so, so low to the ground, this music. These two men, the vocalist with the gargling-sandpaper blurt and the drummer with the deliberately leaden, masterfully stoic, just-get-the-job-done cadences, and the guitarists—Paul Baayens, who also plays with Van Drunen in the good but, for my money, not quite as transcendent Hail of Bullets, on the post-reunion Asphyx discs; Eric Daniels on the old ones and the GSBC LP—who know the hymns that need to be sung, these towering riff colossi, like the swinging, almost balladic, "Let me tell you, son, a story of old" theme of "As the Magma Mammoth Rises," or the vicious yet melodically fine-tuned trilling of the main riff on "Asphyx (Forgotten War)," which you can't hear without thinking of getting threshed up into little bits. Or, maybe best of all, that strutting-down-a-boulevard-in-the-underworld sneer you hear on "We Doom You to Death," a track chronicling, yes, the badassery of Asphyx, and the feebleness of its competitors.

"No one will remember you / Nor your fucking band," growls Van Drunen on "We Doom…," and it's worth thinking about why the opposite is true of Asphyx. An art project can be an umbrella, a wide open creative space—the Melvins, let's say—and still make sense in the long run, still embody a sense of legacy, a sense that a fan's long-term investment is worthwhile. But there's something so satisfying to me about these narrowly defined zones of inquiry, as in Asphyx's case. You are who you are, you grow and change and all the rest, but you keep the family business sacred; you make one thing, really well, and you keep all your pride bound up in it.

It means so much, this consistency. I put this stuff on my iPod, the complete Bagchus / Van Drunen collaborative works, and I just go and go for days. It's like a North Star for me, the dream of an uncluttered statement, of channeling heart and mind into a single mode of expression, clenching down so tightly on this one true thing. And that's when you feel the gravity I spoke of above, the result of merciless focus, of unwavering determination, a grim yet somehow celebratory kind of will that meshes perfectly with the despondent mood of much of Asphyx's music. The rain and the sleet are driving down, the sky is black, you're sloshing through mud and muck, but you're pressing on. And on and on and on. And because you know you're on the right path, you're having a hell of a good time. That's what all this means to me.

[End-credits music: Asphyx - "Asphyx II (They Died as They Marched)"]