In/Humanity and alienation.

In/Humanity were from South Carolina in the early 90s, and at that point in hardcore's history, I would imagine that it was pretty lonely being a band in that style from that part of the United States. In/Humanity weren't your average hardcore band, either; from their earliest recordings, their lyrics indicated intelligence, insight, and an unique perspective into the issues of the day. On their first LP, The Nutty Antichrist, they released such songs as "Embrace Androgyny," "Southern Swastika" (a protest against the fact that their state still flew the Confederate flag atop their statehouse [it must have been so hard to be a punk in South Carolina back then]), and "Fuck the Death Penalty, Let's Compromise" (on which they advocated allowing convicted murderers to choose whether to be executed or to spend life in prison). They also showed a cynical, prankster-ish streak, though, as other songs, like "Teenage Suicide--Do It!" and "Stupid Children" made only too clear. The album ended with the title track, on which singer Chris Bickel told an anti-Christian joke that used his own name: "Jesus knocked at the door to my heart, said, 'Chris Bickel get out here right now!' Satan answered the knock at my door, and said, 'Chris Bickel doesn't live here anymore'." The lyric sheet contained a note encouraging the listener to insert their own name into the appropriate part of the song.

While Nutty Antichrist made it clear that there were intelligent and creative minds behind In/Humanity, its music was, for the most part, pretty conventional hardcore. It was very fast, featuring borderline blastbeat drumming on some tracks, and some interesting songwriting choices (the breakdown on "Stupid Children" and the false ending on "Teenage Suicide" stand out), but compared to some of In/Humanity's peers in the chaotic hardcore scene of the time, such as Antioch Arrow or Universal Order Of Armageddon, what they were doing on The Nutty Antichrist wasn't that weird at all. That started to change on the EP they released inbetween their two LPs, Your Future Lies Smoldering At The Feet Of Robots, on which they got slower, heavier, and above all, weirder. "Modern Hate Vibe" mixed standard fastcore verses with a chorus that was simultaneously melodic and disturbing, as a chorus of off-key voices low in the mix harmonized with Chris Bickel. They warbled and shuddered as they did so, sounding like a tape that had been dropped underwater. "Burn It To The Ground" was nearly four minutes long, an unheard of length for In/Humanity, and it based itself around a foreboding bassline that turned into a full-on headbanging breakdown on the choruses. In/Humanity had never seemed like a mosh band before, and they really didn't now either--the entire EP was a frightening listen, which made me too nervous to even contemplate dancing.

All of this was just a prelude, though, to their second and, it turned out, final LP, The History Behind the Mystery. That record centered on a murder mystery, the plot of which was told over the course of the last three songs on side one. Most of the plot was enumerated in the first song, "Mystery Solved--The History Behind the Mystery." The lyrics of this song consisted of short declarative sentences that would have fit well in a children's book, but for their morbid subject matter. "Ronald got up. Ronald found James. Ronald saw that James was dead. Ronald yelled. Everyone ran to Ronald. The others saw James. Everyone talked." The lyrics go on in this fashion, telling of cops and doctors and accusations and shootouts. In "The Execution of Clive," a much more standard hardcore song than the creepy, meandering "Mystery Solved," the butler is accused of the murder, attempts to flee, and is shot to death. But the real climax of the story is in the final song, "New Discarded Evidence In The Case." "James was so lonely. James only had his health. James was so lonely. James probably killed himself."

Basing an entire record around this bizarre version of a murder mystery seems to fit In/Humanity's mindset at this point in their careers. The real point they are making with the murder mystery is a despairing one, about the pointlessness of existence, and the seeming impossibility of making a real connection with another person. They begin making this point with the record's opening track, "If It's Wrong It's Real." Later, when creating a CD discography collecting their out of print vinyl releases, they changed the order of the songs completely and did some pretty serious remixing. At that time, they added a lengthy introduction to the song; the version on the original LP doesn't contain the sample. The sample is of a Satanic priest intoning an Aleister Crowley quote, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law," and then leading a congregation in repeated chants of "Hail Satan!" Despite not having been a part of the original song, it's a fitting introduction. There is Satanic imagery all over the album's art, from the box of 666 cough syrup on the cover to the pentagrams that festoon the lyric booklet, the entire album is awash in the visual paraphernalia of Satanism. The LP comes with a 33 RPM 7 inch EP, which contains four more songs, collectively titled The Anakrinomphicon Quintilogy. That EP is so bizarre that it makes the main LP seem pretty conventional (which it’s not, at all). It also contributes significantly to the album’s visual theme of Satanism. No doubt In/Humanity would have told you at the time that this was all a joke, or at least intended somewhat ironically. In the clear invocation of Anton LaVey's Church Of Satan rather than a more pagan vision of Satanism a la Black Widow, my theory is that In/Humanity are making some sort of reference to humanity's innate selfishness. And I can't tell if that's a positive or a negative thing in their eyes--on the surface, they always presented themselves as taking a negative attitude towards humanity as a whole (see "Teenage Suicide--Do It!"), but the despairing emotional undercurrents that threaten to completely overtake both the lyrics and the music on The History Behind The Mystery make me think that this "hatred of humanity" pose is just cover for deeper pain.

Pain is the entire focus of "If It's Wrong It's Real." The explanation of the song’s lyrics that is given in the album’s liner notes simply reads “Suicide note.” The song begins with mournful strings playing a two-note drone, under which drummer Will Z. and bassist Ben Roth play an understated vamp. When Chris Bickel and guitarist Paul Swanson join in, though, the song seems to change completely, even though Swanson's guitar is playing the same slow two-chord melody that had been previously played by the string section. It's been transformed into a distorted howl, though, and Bickel adds a howl of his own, screaming in rhythm with the pulses of the guitar chords in a way that makes it sound like he isn't even saying any words. He is, though, and what he's screaming is one of my favorite lyrics ever:

I once said that I'd calm down if you'd be there when I came down.

It's hard to talk about this line, because it has such an intensely personal meaning in my own life, and I don't want to force that interpretation on words written by someone else, who may have meant something completely different than what I took from it. And yet, I feel like this line (and the lyrics to this song as a whole) have had so much meaning in my own life that even if I'm totally off-base in my perception of its meaning, it has to have some validity, some importance. I will proceed with this writing as if that's true.

I've spent plenty of time in my life struggling hard with lack of self-esteem, with depression so intense I could barely get through the day, with overwhelming desires to take my own life. The line I quoted above is a remarkably brief summation of how I often feel in relation to other people in my life when I am at my worst. I know it's wrong; I know that I don't have the right to lean on others, to make them responsible for my self-worth at times when I can't be responsible for my own. I know that I can't expect people to always be there for me, and I know that I can't expect to ever get past my feelings of depression and worthlessness if I can't believe in myself enough to not need the support of other people to stay alive. And yet, when you feel that crappy and you know you're on your own, it can be easy to point the finger at others, even if it's just in your own mind. It can be particularly easy to look to former lovers, people who were supposed to be there for you in a closer, more thorough fashion than anyone else, and blame them for your current emotional state. "You said you would be there for me, and you lied," you might find yourself thinking. "You were supposed to keep me from getting to this point, and you abandoned me." I have played out such imaginary conversations with exes in my head, knowing all along that the thoughts I was directing at them were invalid, that I had no right to expect such things of them. And yet, when you're at your worst, it can sometimes feel better to point the blame at others instead of admitting that it truly lies with yourself. (This problem is one of the things I started therapy in order to deal with. I'm happy to report that it has been working so far.)

When I feel this way, I know it's wrong. Chris Bickel does too. As the song progresses, it moves from the brutal, distortion-driven version of the string section's slow, mournful mantra into a faster, more conventional hardcore riff. That riff still sounds dark and ominous, due to the droning feedback and reverberating strings that still hover, deep down in the mix, throughout even the most energetic parts of the song. But it is fast, angry hardcore, even if Bickel has turned that anger inward. "All bliss is gone," he screams. "All love I kill." When feeling abandoned by someone who was supposed to love you, it's tough to face the fact that your own neuroses were often what drove them away. And yet, that fact can be impossible to escape. If you killed the love in the other person's heart, you might not want to admit that, but you know you did it. You always know. "All love I kill, and this is wrong," Bickel screams, further excoriating himself. "But if it's wrong, I know it's real," he finally declares, revealing the sentiment behind the song's title. Doing the wrong thing is often all that a depressed person understands. They (I) get comfortable with loneliness, fear of judgement, feelings of being outcast by society, and they stop knowing how to deal with the alternatives. Feeling wrong, feeling bad, is comforting, because it's what we're used to. If it's wrong, I know it's real.

The second side of The History Behind The Mystery only further emphasizes the mood created on the first side. "Too Drunk To Molotov" is a harsh attack on punk rock's ostensible status as a revolutionary counterculture. "We will fight them in the streets," the song begins, stealing the title of Minneapolis crust band Code 13's second EP to launch a criticism of the sorts of kids who had that EP in their collection. "Punk rock's nothing more than a Halloween costume contest to you," screams Bickel. "You're more concerned with the contents of that 40 bottle than the actual bottle's uses as an implement of state smashing destruction." One can imagine the sorts of punks that this song is about not being able to decipher what Bickel means with this complex statement, which again seems to be his entire point. The song's final line is screamed over a breakdown on which Paul Swanson plays zooming, descending chords that make it sound like his guitar is sick. "Too drunk to fuck shit up!" Bickel screams over Swanson's woozy guitar accompaniment, which manages to do a perfect sonic imitation of some kids in a spiked jean jacket staggering around with a 40 bottle in his hand.

On "No Thanks Mr. Roboto," Bickel references Styx to protest against his feelings of dehumanization. "I'm now a robot more than a man," he claims. "Lost my emotions to parts from Japan." The entire song makes references to lines from Styx's song "Mr. Roboto," and anyone familiar with that tune will be able to pick out those references easily. However, to hover over the lyric sheet trainspotting Styx lyrics misses the song's point. Again, that point is buried in the final line of the song, where it is easy to miss its importance. "You're in the ground and have been there for weeks," Bickel screams. "And now I can't hide the rust on my cheeks." Is this song really about someone attempting to deal with death through denial of their emotions? Well, it could be about a lot of other things too, and it probably is. But the final lines make a lie of all of the previous claims to no longer have emotions, and therefore kind of invalidate all of Bickel's previous protests of feeling dehumanized. Maybe it's more something he wants than something he's actually experiencing. Maybe his emotions are too hard to deal with, and he's trying to wish them away. I've wanted that many times in my life, and like Bickel, no matter how hard I wished, it never worked.

The History Behind The Mystery's clearest statement of alienation, of loneliness and inability to connect with others, is far less metaphorical and more literal than any other song on the album. It is the penultimate track on the album, and it's called "We're Sick Of Music And We Hate Each Other." As an expression of the way being in a band with someone can cause frustration, resentment, and eventually outright hatred for them to breed within you, it is far too accurate to have been intended seriously. "Thought you were a brother, thought you were a friend," Bickel begins. "But you told me something that I didn't like. What you said about me... was it out of spite?" In these two lines, which come near the beginning of the song, Bickel hits directly upon the problems that specifically afflict relationships involving people who struggle with depression. On one hand, there is the inability to take criticism. On the other hand, there is the constant fear of judgement, of secret hatred that is never revealed, of people laughing at you behind your back. Bickel might know that he's wrong to hold a disagreement with a friend against that friend on a permanent basis. He might equally know that his fear of being judged is paranoia that he shouldn't seriously dignify. And yet, those feelings remain. They grow, and they fester. Until: "Now I think you're a fucking jerk. You fucking fucking fucking jerk." This is where the song gets a bit silly. "Fuck you, Chris Bickel, fuck you, Paul Swanson, fuck you, Will Z., fuck you, Ben Roth," Bickel screams, finally dissolving into a frantically repeated chorus of "Fuck you"'s--16 in all. The fact that he names himself, and in doing so gives equal weight to the frustrations of his bandmates with him as he gives to his own frustrations with them makes the song seem less from Bickel's viewpoint than an ironic view of the tensions that exist within bands after they've been together for a long time. At the time, I took it as a joke. How could they have written a song as self-aware as this and still have been serious? And yet, In/Humanity only survived long enough to record one more EP--the truly bizarre Occultonomy. And even on that EP, Bickel and Swanson had replaced the band's rhythm section, bringing in two new members for a final incarnation of the band that still wasn't able to stay together for more than a few months. "We're Sick Of Music And We Hate Each Other" may have been intended as a joke, but it almost certainly also expressed some real, if buried, emotions.

In/Humanity - "If It's Wrong It's Real," "Teenage Suicide--Do It!," "The Nutty Antichrist," "We're Sick Of Music And We Hate Each Other"