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jj anselmi


New Nonfiction


by J.J. Anselmi

      After setting up two stereos and syncing up both albums, I sit down, letting the coagulated sounds twist my mind. Creeping static and sub-bass drones coming from one CD player push against the more familiar guitar chords, yells, and drumbeats coming from the other player. Anxiety crawls around in my throat like an amphetamine-crazed lizard. Tension between the albums dissolves to emphasize a massive peak, following which disjointed voices drift on different layers, creating an effect similar to watching multiple TVs tuned to different channels. As violins and cellos slither around a mass of dissonance during the last songs, I simultaneously feel relief and dread.
      I’m listening to Neurosis’s Times of Grace and Tribes of Neurot’s Grace, two albums that can stand alone, but are sonically designed to play at the same time. While this is one of my more memorable music experiences, I also feel mentally drained. Because of these albums’ harshness, it’s hard to make it through the entire hour of music. By the end, though, wrinkles and creases in my brain feel more defined.

                                                                                                        * * *

      Surgeon draws ellipse with black marker. Injects anesthetic at several points.
      When my skin is numb, the surgeon delicately traces the marker plan with her scalpel. Each cut loosens taut forearm flesh that, throughout the past five years, has been stretching and regenerating to compensate for roughly twenty square inches of removed, tattooed skin. I notice subtle geometric patterns in the ceiling plaster.
      Six inches down from the beginning point, she cuts out remaining scar tissue, formed during the eight months since I’ve last gone through an excision. A burning sting pulses through my arm.
      Elliptical wound widens as forearm tautness slackens.
      Reflection of gray muscle in glass cover of surgical lamp. Small whorls of skin dot gauze on metal tray. Slowly, surgeon works up forearm, stretching skin, suturing.
      While she threads, I try to construct meaning out of this scarification process. During the next six months, my skin will build a protective barrier around this wound, only to be excised after my forearm flesh has once again stretched enough for another procedure. At least two or three more years of excision procedures loom.
      Surrounding the jagged scar on my forearm, as well as excision scars crawling up both wrists, is language: bizarre documentation of my mental progression.

                                                                                                        * * *

      Having two albums play at the same time sounds like something a thirteen-year-old who’s recently discovered marijuana might think up: “Dude, each album is trippy alone, but check it out when you play them at the same time. It’s gonna blow you away, bro.” My reaction when I first heard about the Neurosis and Tribes of Neurot albums was similar to what I would say to this thirteen-year-old stoner caricature: “That sounds pretty dumb.” But listening to the albums and reading about Neurosis and their process of designing the Tribes album dissipated this thought.
      Neurosis is from Oakland. Like Black Sabbath, whose down-tuned rock reflects the harshness of industrial Birmingham during the 60s and 70s, and Black Flag, whose manic hardcore mirrors the fast, unforgiving pace of 1980s Los Angeles, Neurosis’s music—a stylistic and ideological blend of the above bands’—mimics the socio-economic discord of Oakland, California.
      Neurosis began as a hardcore punk band in the late 80s, progressively complicating that label, as well as distancing themselves from it, with each album they released throughout the 90s. But the DIY mind frame written into their hardcore roots has motivated prolific recordings, and the creation of their own record label: Neurot Recordings.
      By the time the band released Times of Grace in 1999, their fifth full-length, they’d honed a signature method of deconstructing rock music—slow, sludge-laden walls of distortion and noise, coupled with primal drumming and tortured screams. The members of Neurosis also experimented with minimalist orchestration, under the alter ego Tribes of Neurot, for years before this album. In the midst of Neurosis tours and recording sessions, Tribes released four full-length albums, all of which craft soundscapes that provide a vast, often uncomfortable space for interpretation.
      Ranging from oddly timed rhythms, disorienting changes, droning sections and delicate layers of noise—all carefully orchestrated into movements—Times of Grace is the masterwork of Neurosis. To compliment this masterwork, Tribes of Neurot wrote their fifth full-length album, Grace, as an accompaniment. Grace not only shares the same track ordering and timing, but also adds to the Neurosis album on several levels. In his article, “Tribal Connection,” from Electronic Musician, Rick Weldon speaks to Noah Landis, who does keyboard and synth work for Neurosis and Tribes of Neurot, about the writing process for the Tribes album:

“While working on a Tribes song, Landis would pull samples from the corresponding Neurosis song, drop them an octave, and move them around in the stereo environment. “Those samples are still in the right pitch, and they make reference to the Neurosis album,” [Landis] says. “Even though it’s a different sound and texture, your mind hears the connection.” The sampler was used for composition as well. “We would take some sound, like a bowed electric guitar note,” Landis recalls, “and sample that, screwing with the pitch and making a melody out of it. As you slow it down, you hear more of the grit, more of the friction of the bow on the string. The sound gets pulled apart.”

      The space between notes and instruments in most Neurosis songs leads you to think about ideas fueling the music rather than lyrics or technical proficiency. But these recordings require the listener to play a more active role. As stated on the CD insert that comes with Grace, “Due to the nature of CD players ... the elements of chance and chaos ultimately determine the relationship between the two recordings ... Many interesting and unexpected results are gained through the randomness of longer discrepancies in playing time.” This amalgamation of albums transcends genre and progresses the field of audio recording by redefining the role of the listener. The CD insert for the Tribes album suggests, “synchronization times within five seconds are...nearest the “perfect” ideal of the project.” Within those ten seconds—five seconds ahead or behind—there is a space for me to affect this music.
      I have to prepare to listen to these albums, not only in setting up the stereos and syncing the albums, but also creating enough time in my day to listen to an hour of music without interruption. Like a little kid who’s excited to play with a new toy, I ask my girlfriend several times throughout the day, “Are you ready to listen to those Neurosis albums tonight?” It’s easy to lose excitement for art when I’m surrounded by so much amazing media: the internet has made every type of art instantly accessible. But forcing myself to create a more active listening situation—to be more conscious of the music I listen to—makes me feel like my sixteen-year-old self, a kid who thought he might piss his pants out of giddy excitement when he bought his first Black Sabbath record.
      There is a political message in placing more power in the listener’s hands. Living in a broken, corrupt, corporation-controlled society, I often feel powerless. Creating albums that listeners can alter with different stereo set-ups and discrepancies in playing time is a direct way to remind people that we can control what we buy. On a different level, the vast interpretive space in both Times of Grace and Grace tell me that I can alter the way I see reality by constructing webs of meaning.
      Countering giddiness when I sync the stereos is the scathing gray of this listening experience. At times, I feel like a subject in the late ’50s LSD studies, when the CIA tried to determine the drug’s usefulness as an anxiety-provoking agent—like a guy locked in a small concrete room, tripping balls, forced to listen to abrasive noise at ridiculously high decibel ratings while strobe lights flash. Subtle droning on the Tribes album, coupled with more tangible heaviness from the Neurosis album, coils around my chest. Past experiences with these albums, similar types of music, and other disorienting art tell me that, if I keep listening, I will be rewarded. Maybe I’m a masochist, but I think the most meaningful artistic experiences cause pain. The ways in which Grace and Times of Grace encapsulate the listener and make the act of listening more active and spontaneous, which in turn increases consciousness of what is happening around you, intensifies the negative effects of these albums. The need to subvert this negativity with interpretation becomes urgent.
      My head aches after four songs. My sinuses tighten under a claustrophobic weight. Instead of getting up to walk around, though, I force myself to focus more intently on the sounds surrounding me.
      In small increments, gray peaks of cacophony start to seem beautiful. Perhaps it is a process of getting desensitized, but I think it’s something more: actively surrounding these harsh sounds with my own language, fueled by an imposed need to find reasoning for putting myself through this auditory pain. Soon, I taste sweetness in Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly’s mercuric guitar riffs, which rest on pedestals of Jason Roeder’s syncopated drumbeats, Dave Edwardson’s distortion-laced bass, and Tribes’s subtle noise.

                                                                                                        * * *

      Fresno, California, where I’ve recently moved, has the sixth-highest unemployment rate in the country and the accompanying crime. Riding my bike home one night, three men dressed in camouflage rode past me. Flashing white and red lights adorned their mountain bikes and the carts attached to their bikes. Bins of trash stood in front of driveways. Each guy stopped in front of a different house, hurriedly looking through the recycling bin, tossing a few things into his cart. People who’ve lived in Fresno for a while tell me that this happens all the time. Popping up in southern parts of the city, shantytowns are the new neighborhoods most of us don’t want to think about.
      Downtown Fresno, minutes from my rental house, is a harsh reminder of how badly economic recession has fucked up this city. Empty concrete buildings and abandoned storefronts with plywood covering the windows loom above streets. Getting close to city hall, the creak of my bicycle cranks echoes off asphalt. I don’t have to wait for cars at most intersections.
      I imagine names of bands on empty marquees above old concert halls. At a run-down Chinese restaurant, I see a cleaned, polished version of a circular, yellow, maze-like sculpture that rust is currently consuming. I can hear voices of customers at a street-corner coffee shop whose sign, although there are still coffee machines, chairs, and tables inside, indefinitely reads “Closed.”

J.J. Anselmi is a nonfiction MFA candidate at CSU Fresno, where he also teaches undergraduate writing and works as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. His work has appeared in Copper Nickel, Obsolete!, and elsewhere. His essay, "Living Through Pantera," was published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Writing Disorder. He's also recently become a freelance writer for Splicetoday.

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