Category: Industrial / Metal
Blurb: Tribal drums, thick guitars, and driving bass lines punctuate this excellent concept album that delivers more than a few surprises throughout.
English social philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived of the idea of the Panopticon in the late 1700s as a way of managing prisons in a cost effective and low impact way that was more spiritually intrusive than physically so. Imagine a circular building with a single, glass-enclosed hub where the jailer sits, able to see every single thing that happens in any cell or area across the prison. The prisoners would have no idea if they were being observed at any one time, with the result being their ongoing, constant expectation of observation and continual judgment. These prisoners, unable to see if they were being watched, lived in a sort of ephemeral, uncertain state, unable to make the kinds of decisions that the jailers didn’t want them to; embarrassed, humiliated, visible. In Bentham’s model, the ability to watch was power. And the Watcher was king.
Throughout the new White Shadow album, Panopticon, the king is a consistent presence. The thread that seems to pull the songs together most tightly is that unwatchable presence of the Watcher, a subjective voice that sits above the moral and ethical, artistic, and interpersonal entrenchment of the listener and creates a character unashamed at his own transgressions and obsessions; watching but, through his chameleon shifts from song to song, is unwatchable. The point of view from which many of these songs explode outward narrowly avoids classification and qualification.
This creates a kind of freedom across the entire record, one that White Shadow takes advantage of to build something really interesting, without apology. In fact, DXNero, in his vocal presentation, makes us imagine Tyler Spencer in his most unapologetic. He is snide, expressive, imposing, ripping through the first few songs on the album until, finally, on the fifth song, “I Don’t Know What I Am,” when he lulls us into a pretty trance with the softer side of his vocal delivery we know that it’s likely because White Shadow’s watcher has observed one of his most unforgiveable offenses.
And what those offenses create, together, draws us into a conceptual album of sins that the Watcher is prepared to view – to watch, with a brutality and honesty that is really unique and, at times, stunning. I imagine the Watcher, at the center of every sin, turning almost, but not quite, 30 degrees at the end of each song, to rape and exploit the sin of the next prisoner; the inquisitor and witness all in one.
The album opens simply, with a small sin. “Slipgate” starts up with a tribal strength that recalls the hubris and “anything goes” sensibilities of the one night stand. Dirty and fun, the Watcher is more honest than we would be, suggesting that this is a temporary escape from a parasite – a kind of desire that makes us do what we do, and that nothing we do today is going to kill it, make it go away for good. The Watcher here can say and do things that we can’t. This first sin is physical. It’s one we’ve all committed but maybe not admitted to in quite this way.
We explore a litany of sins across the next 12 tracks, propelled by driving synth bass lines, tribal tom beats, thick and expressive guitars, and a vocal presentation that is really one of the best and most unique I’ve heard this year. And the freedom of this perspective creates a sense of abandon and even, at times, joy around what becomes, essentially, a densely musical set of confessions from murderers, thieves, the disaffected, the disconnected, the prosecuted, and the persecuted. In “10,000 Masks,” the Watcher presents, for our entertainment, the inner musings of the enemy; someone who, despite everything, still imagines himself a savior. “Some want vengeance / I want chaos / pound for pound, it’s what I’m all about. I descend and become an inferno / consume it all, until you snuff me out.”
The Watcher sees all. From the abandoned children of “Panopticon” to the dark trapped and vulnerable beast of “Six Months of Sundays,” it’s an ongoing inquisition, open and visible to everyone. It’s functional truth serum that forces the liars and users in the outermost cells into a kind of honesty that renders them helpless and inert. It’s the kind of honesty in “Cold Ground” that makes “You should have known I’d betray you, it’s just who I am” into a viable prison sentence. That is the value of the Panopticon. Once you learn to trust your eyes, no one can lie.
But as hard and unforgiving as this concept record is, White Shadow manages to keep it from becoming one-dimensional and obvious. The sonic paintings throughout offset the powerhouse drumming and relentless guitars with a kind of Pink Floyd-like expression; hypnotic and gliding, thoughtful and really, very beautiful. The entire album refuses to fall cartoonishly into any one category, seemingly using whatever musical device is best suited to telling the story of that particular sin, even if it means an earnest toasting-like rap finale to “Addicted to Despair.”
The result is a powerful album that creates its own world, from start to finish. DXNero’s vocal delivery evokes some of the best moments of Electric Six, Tool, and the Foo Fighters, while still stewing in this hypervisual and dark universe created by the record’s vision. Kryptych’s and Nytro’s guitars are impressively diverse yet exactly what’s needed to generate some of head-banging energy that they need, while the drums are both musical and fist-pumping in the long and not easily duplicated tradition of Killing Joke. On top of this, the sound presentations of Wahkeen add an unexpected depth and industrial brilliance to the entire thing, without ever descending into inhumanity or sterility.
One of the real triumphs of industrial music may be in its ability to act as the antecedent to albums like this, ones that draw on musical traditions all over the map without fear or restraint. If so, it’s been a long and circuitous route here.
But it definitely seems to have been worth the trip.
White Shadow Website http://whiteshadowmusic.com
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Jim Marcus (Mutilato)