Thursday, October 12, 2017

album review: 'heaven upside down' by marilyn manson

So here's one of the byproducts of the weird way I got into metal and industrial music: almost by accident I completely missed Marilyn Manson. Seriously, it's actually a little bizarre how until very recently I had just completely missed covering the industrial iconoclast or even hearing much of his music beyond the covers that managed to cross over - as I've said in the past, I never had an angry white boy phase, and I found goth music and culture more through symphonic metal, black metal, and early post-punk and industrial music more than the mutated hybrids that came out in the 90s and 2000s that spawned acts like Marilyn Manson. 

Now that's not saying that Manson doesn't have a place in pop culture - he most certainly does, from his 90s breakout records produced by Trent Reznor to his numerous artistic pivots throughout the early 2000s - but in retrospect you often get the impression that his image has persisted a lot longer than his music has. It's one of the reasons I actually respect his pop sensibility - if you're aware your currency is in shock value, you might as well pair it with tunes that can be pretty damn catchy that'll at least stick when all but the professionally outraged set grows up. But that's the thing: folks who grew up with Marilyn Manson did grow up, and he was still making music, and after severing ties with Interscope you could tell he was probing different territory, going for metal with Born Villain and even pivoting towards blues with The Pale Emperor, with the backing of producer and composer Tyler Bates. But I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before he pivoted back towards what made his career, and given that buzz was suggesting the political undercurrent was going to be flowing again, I figured Manson's natural gift for provocation could actually pay off here. And even if, again, I'm no big fan of the guy's music - I could easily rattle off a slew of other gothic acts that I find more potent than Marilyn Manson - I figure I might as well take a look. So, what did we unearth here?

Honestly, this didn't really make much of an impression on me, at all. And really, if there was a time in my life that this would fit up my alley it would be now, but in a sense that might be the problem: when I'm regularly immersed in more abrasive, shocking or potent industrial music, I'm just not all that wowed by what Marilyn Manson is bringing to the table. But going beyond that, for all the talk that Heaven Upside Down is a return to form, it feels more like a pale imitation of sounds and topics that Marilyn Manson did before and better twenty years ago on Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals - not precisely bad, but when you find out that at least two songs are interpolating better tracks Manson has made in the past, you're not going to be surprised.

So let's start with the content, where reportedly Marilyn Manson was aiming to get more political this time around... and yet I can't in good conscience say that happens. What instead we get is an outgrowth of much of the same nihilism that's always flowed through his work, just painted with a broader brush on the world at large, focusing on people who are too stupid or lacking in self-awareness to actually admit the evil of their actions, or on the desperate flocking to believe in something being taught by someone who believes in nothing. And then amidst the growing chaos and violence we have Marilyn Manson, living in a world that more than ever reflects his worldview, and even he seems to be asking how far people will go down this path. For his tortured outlook, fueled by ravenous consumption - especially of younger artists - cocaine abuse, and a heavier vampiric undercurrent than ever, he embraced this side of nihilism because he needed it to fill the void within... and yet for everyone else, when the veneers are ripped away, he's not all that surprised to see the same voids yearning to be filled - after all, he's not attracting what he wants, but who he is, which is damaged, sadistic, and yet never quite at the point of just ending all of it. So okay, throw up a mirror to an audience that's all the more obvious in today's day and age, that could be potent... but again, it does feel obvious, and the fact that it doesn't feel all that satisfying to Manson may be left in subtext, but it does linger, perhaps only obscured by the blood and sex and did I mention piles of cocaine?

But here's the first problem: for as much as Manson can be a convincing presence behind the microphone, between guttural whispers, screams, and a Bowie impression he's working harder than ever, the writing can't help but feel blunter than it probably should be. Manson might not indulge in the glamour of his nihilistic impulses as much as he did twenty years ago, but that doesn't mean the poetry had to take a tilt for the painfully obvious, or in some cases just silly. The counting on 'Revolution 12', the homophone driving the hook of 'Say10', pretty much all of the cocaine references on 'Jesus Crisis' that just feels overloaded - hell, for as much as he uses the phrase 'upside down' on 'Blood Honey' and the title track it can start to feel a bit cartoonish. Hell, it's not even particularly shocking or graphic - a little edgy, sure, but not in a way that actually gets under my skin. My favourite line on the entire record is 'So what's a nice place like this doing 'round people like us' - simple, conversational phrase flipped into something unsettling, and yet it's a prechorus before Manson howls he knows where you fucking live and the subtlety goes right out the window. That's the frustrating thing about this record: there is some subtle symbolism and language on songs like 'Say10' or the title track, but it's not consistent, and again, when you have Manson actively interpolating previous songs for imagery, it can feel a little lacking in ideas.

So okay, maybe the production can make up for it... well, here's the thing. As I said before, Manson has had two big advantages in his career: a knack for pop hooks and surrounding himself with great producers, and getting Trent Reznor early on was a huge boon for him. Hate to say it: Tyler Bates is no Trent Reznor or Twiggy Ramirez, and yet for as much as this record is trying to imitate both some of the industrial and glam touches of Manson's heyday, it's impossible to avoid the comparison. Now there are some grooves that have some of that slimy industrial muscle: the louder grind on the hook of 'We Know Where You Fucking Live' against the wiry murk on the verses, a contrast that gets even more pronounced on 'Say10' with the metallic layers spiking off the piano and sparse sandy beat, the synth careening off a solid guitar melody on 'Kill4Me', even some of the glam elements of 'Threats Of Romance' managed to work for me. But these are not songs that showcase incredible instrumental chops or some of Manson's best hooks or even tones and atmosphere that I couldn't otherwise hear in other industrial metal or even the more experimental sides of hip-hop - I swear, a bunch of tones on 'Tattooed In Reverse' sound very reminiscent of what Sims put on More Than Ever last year, except this song has wonky blues digressions that fit a lot less effectively this time around. And that's before you just get gurgling tones on 'Jesus Crisis' and 'Blood Honey' that not only don't really enhance the atmosphere but also seem to have sucked much of the air out of the mix as well. And then we get the near eight minute behemoth of 'Saturnalia', where I do like the groove and the ambition... but it's also a song that doesn't really seem to have much momentum in its instrumental passages and the transitions feel clumsy. And that's a common feeling across many of these compositions: the main idea is established relatively quickly, and then we're stuck asking what's next, expecting a pivot or surprise that never comes...

Come to think of it, that might be apt for summarizing my feelings on the lyrics too, and the album as a whole. I'm not going to say that Marilyn Manson ran out of ideas with this, but despite the heaps of cocaine, if everyone is now embracing your same brand of nihilism in America in 2017, you lose some of that same shocking power if you don't pivot or dive deeper to deconstruct or dissect it, and Manson doesn't really do that here - as a ideological villain Manson was never supposed to 'win', and I'm not sure he knows what to do with it now that he's closer than ever, in a way that he never expected. And for me as someone who didn't grow up with Marilyn Manson, this can't help but feel like a grasping facsimile of sounds and tones he did better before. As such... eh, strong 5/10, a recommendation for fans, but otherwise check out Mechanical Animals and Antichrist Superstar more, and as for Marilyn Manson... I have no idea what he'll need to get his edge restored, but he's too much of a pop culture figure to be gone for long - whatever it is, something will be coming.

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