Art With Impact: Godflesh
I love music. I will never be one of those people who, when asked what kind of music I like, shrugs and says “a little bit of everything,” (which to me always signifies REAL interest in a whole lot of nothing) but I do believe there is a time and a place for all kinds of music, if it began with a passion to create something good, and a little bit of that magical ability to capture or reflect life. There are many bands and musicians that matter to me, many of which don’t have the slightest artistic relation to each other, and most of which don’t matter in the slightest to anyone I know. This often makes me pause. If this stuff isn’t readily ‘likable,’ why do I like it so much? What is it about me (or the music) that makes it seem so relevant?
Godflesh is one such band. Their founding member and driving creative force, Justin Broadrick, once said that the band name was chosen because of its “unpleasant weight,” capturing the general feeling of their music. I’ve also read that their style can often inspire ‘instant repulsion,’ which I easily understand. I can almost see the eyes rolling from the “radio” crowd already: “Why would anyone want to deal with “music” like that? Are you depressed? Do you have anger issues?” For me, when art perfectly captures a feeling I’m familiar with, it’s exhilarating. It strikes a unique chord that I know; I don’t have to be feeling unpleasant to connect with ‘unpleasant’ music, and to get a rush from it.
Not that anger or depression dominate Godflesh’s sound: overall, I’d say their mood is often alienation. They are “heavy,” but not in any pounding, fast, or heavily aggressive way. Live drum sounds are rare: their beats come mostly from different drum machines, and their guitar sound has a slower, grinding wail that will bore most metalheads. Godflesh is not for the self-absorbed teen rebel, feeling immature anger and looking for the nearest mosh pit. It combines heaviness and industrial influence into cold, methodically produced soundscapes. I remember when I first heard them: on a movie soundtrack compilation of heavy/industrial music. They stuck out from the obvious and forced hybrids like a sore thumb.
The words are difficult to make out; the music is distorted into oblivion, the beat grinds along, and yet, to me, it’s uniquely good art. Broadrick spoke of Godflesh as a project to express the alienation and fear one feels in the super-industrialized world. I think it works perfectly. It’s music for the awareness of being one small part in a giant, impersonal machine, dark nights of claustrophobia in a life from which passion and humanity is actively stripped, one small piece at a time. Their early albums pulse with the malevolence that somehow goes with this impersonality. Mouldering buildings, ugly factories, smokestacks, traffic-filled roads, the look of paved earth on all sides, industrial civilization’s imprint on the world: how do these things feel “bad” when we see them? What makes them sinister? There is an answer of course, and it can be gotten to through long personal discussions, or captured perfectly in this short blast:
As you explore their catalog, you can see Godflesh undergo quite a bit of musical growth. There are different angles or expanded facets of the same feelings: live drums and bigger guitars? The “Hymns” album. Deep, booming bass and urban beats? The “Us and Them” album. And so on. Whatever the aspect, Godflesh reflect the humanity somehow buried in the world we’ve made. To power the great forces in modern civilization, many of us have put our individual identities aside to unify and create structures of far greater power than any individual could hope to have. We wouldn’t really have it any other way, but Godflesh examine the inevitable dark side: the faceless and somewhat frightening quality of these structures, that loom over us and around us, threatening to erase the individual altogether.
I once drove 20 straight hours from Tulsa to Hellertown, PA. and was struck by how even out in the ‘open,’ the fingers of what we’ve built seem to make their presence felt: muddy ditches, rusted quonset huts at far-flung depots for truckers, and above all the road itself: paving over nature endlessly and grinding from one urban center to another, mile after mile under an eerily lit gray sky. The moment was perfect for what I had playing in the car, and I’ll leave you with it: