Devil is Fine

I have been enjoying this new album a lot. By way of introduction, you can read a little about the album’s inception over here. The album aims to fuse the musicality of the spirituals and blues with that of metal and it achieves that on melodic, rhythmic, lyrical, and thematic terms.

A black man dressed in early American dress. A circular green field of color overlays most of the image, bounded by a white border and overlain with the sigil of Lucifer in Asia from the Grimorium Verum.

The musical dimensions are stunning. The way the album can take you from the African-inflected beat of the spirituals to the screaming metal crescendo does more than just show off Gagneux’s musical chops; it captures something about the world which animated the spirituals, the world of the plantation and enslavement.

The instrumental interludes (Sacrilegium I-III; okay, Sacrilegium I plays with Sufi-like vocalizing, but that is deployed like an instrument here, and plays up the often underappreciated role of Islam in the history of enslaved African Americans) are delightful moments of respite from the album’s lyrical intensity, light and playful with a hint of distortion. The movements that join the blues to the metal are graceful, almost as if they have always been joined elements of a common style.

The lyrical and thematic efforts to join metal’s occult obsession with satanism to the blues’ and spiritual’s concern for the devil pops. Thematically, it resonates with the way Beyonce worked aspects of European and African witchcraft together for Lemonade. Similar terrain, but Devil is Fine‘s trajectory and velocity presents us with a different experience.

I can’t separate this album from the timing of my encounter with it. On the personal level, the exploration of the devil and satanism calls out to my Gnostic cosmologizing. On the plane of history, though, it calls out to two anniversaries that we have just moved through, those of the Haitian Revolution and Nat Turner’s rebellion. Satan and the Devil aren’t just words angry teenagers throw around to make adults squirm, they are witnesses to the sins of the world.

We get caught up in telling folks that this or that practice ain’t satanism, that we forget to ask after why those practices might acquire that implication in the first place. The accusations of satanism can easily be the result of cynical and fearful witchhunts without a basis in fact, but beneath that fear is the unsettling recognition that beyond the accusations that distract, their is a dark reality being obscured. The finger that extends out in false accusation is the finger in which self-doubt and guilt have begun to settle. Beneath the accusation of another of witchcraft, there is the sense that one is preparing a place in one’s own life for that witchcraft to settle, a gap into which the witch will slip and begin to eat away the accuser to naught.

As I hear this album progress from lyrics like “we gonna go home to the flames” and “little one better heed my warning” in the opening, titular track to “the riverbed will run with the blood of the saints and the blood of the holy” of track 7, “Blood in the River,” I hear the thrum of those anniversaries. There is a righteousness in play, of the sins upon which the lives of the ‘holy’ are built becoming the violence that is their massacre. Carried out with the rhythm of the spirituals, the heaviness of that is on full display.

Call the Haitian revolt satanic, yes, but the ‘holy’ French dead in its wake? Call it satanic because the revolt bears within its heart an accusation and a judgment on their so-called holiness. Nina Simone sings it better than I can say: “You won’t go to heaven / you won’t go to hell / you remain in your graves / with the stench and the smell.” Those Europeans calling it satanic are sensing their sin, their immorality, rising up against them and desperately attempting to defer it by accusing the accuser.

The album art features a black man in old-fashioned dress, overlain with a seal of Lucifer, the space of which is saturated with a sickly wormwood green. The black man beneath embodies the root of this piece, the spirituals, while the green layer serves as the interface through which the demonic seal, a feature of more than a little metal art, is received. That play is there in the history, too. The green wood, the plant interfaces, through which grimoiric practices became part of African diasporic practice (something observed by Erwan Dianteill, too, in his work in Cuba, but which seems to have taken place all over the diaspora).

After my first pass through the album, my thought was that the seal of Lucifer was misplaced, and not just because it was the seal of Lucifer in Asia (I know, nerd). The themes explored in the lyrics (murder, fertility, children) more properly belonged under the operations of Baal/Beelzebub/Satan, but as I stated that aloud to myself, I could feel the spiritual rejoinder to it. Yes, this work depends more upon Beelzebub in the grimoiric sense, but it is from that operation that the Luciferian consciousness develops.

I was reminded of Hegel’s study of the fall of Rome in Phenomenology of Spirit in which the bondsman mentality is succeeded by that of unhappy consciousness. That unhappy consciousness is unhappy precisely because the intelligence (Lucifer, lightbringer, angel-devil of culture) it develops to a fine point under oppression is so hemmed in. It started to dawn on me that it is too easy to associate the oppressor with Beelzebub-Baal and his kingship, when what we actually see under that figure is the devil who speaks to the suffering experienced under the oppressor.

Simone Weil asserts that it is perverse feature of human beings that the one who crushes feels nothing while the one who is crushed is overwhelmed. The rejoinder to being crushed comes from Beelzebub and from within that rejoinder Lucifer stands forth with the means. Lucifer is something like Satan’s general, the man with the plan who carries out the unrelenting will of revolt. Which makes Beelzebub something very much like the king of the uprising. Or, to turn to Walter Benjamin, Beelzebub holds in his hands the rattling chains of ancestors who have died in chains, the clangor of which announce the demands for human freedom upon which the messiah can alight.

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