“It’s a little bit of a conversation with myself,” says Philadelphia’s Ben Rosenbach, the person behind electronic post-rock project Our Alarm Clock. It’s a solo endeavor he’s had for nearly a decade, although he’s written music since he was a teenager. He spent much of his formative years listening to and playing in Christian rock bands with his best friend, even before he became a Christian at 19. Faith and music have always been central to Rosenbach’s identity. In Our Alarm Clock, Rosenbach wrangles the ecstasy of worship-oriented music into a chimera of ambient music, pop, and post-rock – his new LP Time flies. Suns rise and shadows fall. Let time go by. Love is forever over all. is the crystallized result.
If the album’s title sounds like it came out of a fortune cookie, that’s because it did. Rosenbach laughs about that, musing on how these ideas come from the strangest places. That ethos carries over to his music – he’ll hear a riff or melody course through his head even at inopportune moments, and he’ll have to either frantically sing it into his phone, or run home to record it. A rushed lo-fi vocal recording soon becomes soaring synths and lush guitar work, surrounded by steady rhythms.
Well, maybe “soon” is an overstatement. Time flies… has been on Rosenbach’s mind for a few years at this point, and he’s methodically tweaked the stems until they’ve become precise and profound. Take lead single “A Sealed Up Secret Wish” for example, which begins as a meandering synthpop nugget that grows to titanic size, climaxing with explosive guitars and pummeling drums. When the wave eventually rolls back, the listener is left with the original piano riff that inspired the song.
When he mentions conversing with himself, Rosenbach’s specifically talking about “Sunrise,” one of the three tracks on the LP with vocals. The image is funny for a predominantly instrumental album, but it works, and applies to its thematic foundation – learning balance. “The words in the chorus on ‘Sunrise’ are existential,” he says, cheekily mentioning that he’s not trying to sound too much like a deep fourteen-year-old. At the end of the song, he responds with a plea to “stay and watch the sunrise.”
Much of Our Alarm Clock’s music has focused on finding balance and rest. Thirty-two years old and a father, Rosenbach explores a different landscape on Time Flies… than when the project began. By the time the final song rolls around, the listener has been taken through sublime peaks and more pacifying passages, never becoming obnoxiously nihilist or naively optimistic, instead stumbling upon its resting place somewhere realistic.
Like many, I hadn’t heard the term “incel” until April 23, 2018 when twenty-five year old Alek Minassian drove a rental van onto a Toronto sidewalk, killing ten and injuring sixteen others. He had no prior convictions or run-ins with the law, and was frequently described as being quiet, although socially awkward. In a Telegraph article, a secondary school colleague said Minassian’s behavior was “usually quite strange…. [He] made people feel uneasy around him,” but “never noticed anything violent.” A college acquaintance said Minassian was “extremely bright,” and he “couldn’t imagine him doing something like this.”
Shortly before Minassian acted, he posted a cryptic message to Facebook, a post that would beguile many, and send journalists to 4chan, Reddit, and incel forums: “Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” In a few sentences – lines, really – Minassian revealed yet another seething, scary internet underbelly to an unsuspecting public.
There’s a lot to unpack in Minassian’s message, so let’s start with the most basic – something you may already know. “Incel” stands for involuntarily celibate, and refers to a segment of the male population who not only are unable to find themselves a romantic or sexual partner despite their desire for one, but believe that it is caused by factors they cannot control. “Chads” are sexually active men and “Stacys” are sexually active women, though if you spend more than a handful of hours on incel forums (There are a LOT of them, but incels.me and lookism.net were two preeminent ones), you’re sure to find much more detailed information – a lot of it reads like phrenology, the pseudoscience used in eugenics and as a means to rationalize slavery. “Chads” and “Stacys” are despised, largely responsible for the plight of incels.
There are hundreds of technical terms used by incels to unpack their existence – what caused it, what defines it. Incels frame their misfortunes through anatomical mistakes like their “canthal tilt” or “the angle of the lateral canthus (outside corner of eye) in relation to the medial canthus (inside corner of eye),” the shape of their chin, their weight, the presence – of lack thereof – of hair. Anything is fair game, as long as it keeps you from getting laid.
As upsetting as it is that incel culture creeps from the computer screen into North American streets, it never stops being tragic. It is utterly sad. Immediately following Minassian’s arrest, there was an influx of articles – most featuring bewildered writers and cultural critics unable to comprehend, many of which dehumanized the subculture, and quite frankly incensed them. These articles reinforced the fact that mainstream North Americans had nothing but hatred towards them – something incels have known all along.
One particular Vice article did something different – they spoke with an incel. Yeah, in general DEFINITELY take Vice with a grain of salt, but for some reason, they are very good at infiltrating right wing and reactionary groups. Elle Reeve from Vice went to an incel’s apartment after meeting through a chatroom and spent a day talking and getting to understand incel culture. From my experience, and by the article’s words, Joey is on the more manageable side of incels – he’s not sexually active, but his issues seem to stem more from simply loving digital life more than real life, whatever that means. He apologizes for the misogynistic jokes that the reporter sees on the chat forums – he feels bad that she is being attacked. Online, perhaps he will say and do one thing, but when faced with human beings, he is entirely different.
That seems fairly consistent with incels at large – that’s why when violence occurs from this segment, people are surprised. By and large, the rhetoric spewed by incels is just that – rhetoric. The big personalities in inceldom – and there is a social hierarchy in inceldom, trust me, the ironies don’t stop there – don’t end up violently attacking innocents, but there is this competitive circle jerk aspect to the movement. It’s like leg touching. Someone mentions a violent act in digital fantasy. Maybe it’s a rape. Maybe it’s murder. Maybe it’s mass murder. It begins as a joke, and people start dogpiling. Someone thinks this is a tacit affirmation of their fantasy. They take it into the physical realm, and people start dying.
Male rage has existed as long as males have existed, and there are many, many forms of it. With the advent of modern communication – the ease to rent a car, the ease to buy a gun in the U.S. – it has never been easier for males to enact their rage. Historically, this hasn’t bled into the realm of the beta male or, in the case of incels, the omega male. But technology changes everything. When swords were made, you could rely less on brute strength. When guns were made, you could rely less on reach and reflexes. When bombs were made, you could rely less on accuracy. When drones were made, well…you get the point.
It has never been easier to kill someone, and there have been many waiting for their chance. And even if incels at large are not murderers, it only takes one to cause permanent damage.
There’s a chilling note at the end of the Telegraph article on Minassian. 42-year old survivor Panna Patel recounts the attacker’s behavior as being “like he was playing a video game, trying to kill as many people as possible. He was looking people directly in the eye, making eye contact, it was so scary. He wasn’t remorseful at all.” There’s an obvious parallel between being behind the windshield of a car and being behind the screen of a computer. But in one scenario, the effect is wallowing in misery while riling up an agitated body, and in another, people are dying. At some point, the froth boils over from one into the other. I’ll let you determine which way that goes.
Last December while flying to France, I brought along a book by David Neiwert – Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump. The title says it all. The book works as a history, but moves quickly, talking through long-standing organizations like the John Birch Society and the KKK., but pinpoints the rise of the alt-right on the rise of private militias in the 1990s, which largely occurred as a result of government standoffs – Ruby Ridge and Waco – and a growing concern that the United States government was both anti-gun and becoming increasingly authoritarian. These beliefs can be traced back to various conspiracy theorists – see: New World Order.
Timothy McVeigh was inclined to fall in line with extreme right wing political ideology, and it became the gunpowder for his explosive predispositions, crystallized in the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. PBS ran an excellent documentary on the Oklahoma City Bombing, which includes a lot of primary source material from McVeigh, and it’s as sad as it is harrowing. There is an unmistakable connection between gun shows and the spread of right wing extremism. McVeigh – like many right wing zealots – was largely radicalized by the rhetoric and ideas in The Turner Diaries, a book by White Nationalist and Neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce that established many of McVeigh’s beliefs, and became the jump off point for creating the bombs used in the Oklahoma City Bombing. You don’t have to go far to see how pervasive this book was in Radical Right conversations – Christian Picciolini mentions it explicitly as a major influence for his tenure in white power punk groups in his book White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement–and How I Got Out, as do many other contemporary neo-nazis. To his credit, Picciolini abandoned those beliefs and projects, since dedicating his life to deprogramming and de-radicalizing right wing extremists with organizations like Life After Hate and the Freed Radicals Project.
This is to say that when McVeigh was selling copies of the Turner Diaries at gun shows he was touching a lot of hands, traveling back and forth across the United States, establishing a rapport that continues in right wing extremist circles. This legacy continues fiercely today. It’s impossible to make a blanket statement about people who attend gun shows, but there is a loud segment of anti-government show attendees who just love America. The irony is not lost on me, and would be funny if it weren’t so legitimately scary.
What’s more scary is the fact that one radicalized person caused the deaths of 168 people in Oklahoma City, injuring 680 more, and destroying a third of a building because of a book and confirmation bias. While he was in the military during Operation Desert Storm, McVeigh had a profound realization after being told to execute prisoners – he was part of an unjust war. In fact, the United States was an international bully rather than an international savior. Ruby Ridge and Waco – for McVeigh – were corroboration that the United States government was a domestic bully to boot, and he wanted to hit them where it hurt.
These are anxiety-inducing times. Perhaps they all are. The amount of violence – domestic terrorism, school shootings – in our country is shocking, and it’s something I couldn’t put into perspective until I went abroad so consistently. Other countries don’t have this – this unending, outwardly-focused rage. Why?
There’s something telling in the fact that McVeigh and his cohorts were appalled when Clinton ennacted the Brady Bill in 1993, requiring gun manufacturers and sellers to conduct background checks on purchasers of handguns. Furthermore, they were incensed that the United States would ban assault weapons (1994). Why would you need assault weapons? Why would you be opposed to requiring these background checks? This contingent believes it is at war and as a result needs weapons for war. McVeigh – at one point in an interview – says the FBI is at war with the American people, but the reality is that McVeigh and people like McVeigh are the ones at war with the American people, and they’re in it for the long haul.
I met Billy and Terry from Buck Gooter in the flesh a little over a year ago. Billy had hooked me up with a Reverent gig in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where the primal industrial blues duo is based. I had never been to Harrisonburg, but knew that The Goot was a pair of true freaks after having connected online through ONO, my old label Moniker, and a love for outsider and self-taught art. Billy and I became friends immediately – we connected politically, artistically, and – obviously – socially. You have to consider movement and motion when you think about Buck Gooter. They’re always on the move, always creating something, always into some new crazy shit. Terry’s making his hallucinatory, vibrant art. Billy’s archiving or unearthing some new impossibly obscure artifact. When you’re friends with Buck Gooter, you’re friends with two of the most interesting people in America.
So when Jake Saunders of Ramp Local reached out to me to write a bio for the band’s one-sheet, I leapt at the chance. “Yeah, I’ll have it done tomorrow.” I think that’s what I said. It sounds like me, at least. Billy, Terry, and I got on the phone that evening, talked through tragedy, transformation, and the healing power of creative communion – heavy. I finished the bio the next day, and Ramp Local used it as part of the press outreach for Buck Gooter’s newest album Finer Thorns. You can read the one-sheet after the embed.
“Family deaths, trips to the psych ward, break ups,” Billy Brett, vocalist, synthesist, and percussionist for Virginia primal industrial blues duo Buck Gooter, lists out, touching on the various life stuffs that they’ve weathered. “My life got turned completely around [at one point], and the band stayed there, although I was kind of curled up in a corner,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got all this baggage,” bandmate Terry Turtle, guitarist and vocalist, says. “Prisons, my friend murdered, and every now and then I have these meltdowns. I haven’t had one in a while, but I’ve been sober for two years, and it’s been the best time in my life.” Spend a few minutes talking to Terry and Billy, and you’re liable to hear something both shocking and inspiring. Despite periods of volatility, every week the duo meets to practice in a basement because Buck Gooter is a steadying constant for both Billy and Terry, and as the project has increasingly become their life’s motivating force, the creative process has become streamlined, and their material has crystallized into something relentlessly seething and profoundly moving.
Buck Gooter’s interpersonal dynamic is also moving. There’s about a thirty year age gap between Billy and Terry, but you probably couldn’t tell by the band’s balance. Terry’s a veteran musician, having spent decades playing solo guitar or in bands like Blacks Run Goats, named after the Blacks Run creek/sewer that runs through Harrisonburg, but after the death of a bandmate, Terry couldn’t find someone he could play music the way he wanted. Then he met Billy. In the short documentary “The Man Named Turtle,” Terry talks about the two of them meeting at Harrisonburg collective establishment The Little Grill. Terry’s worked at the grill for decades, washing dishes, an activity he loves. Billy had been immediately drawn into Terry’s visual art, hallucinatory amalgamations of personal experience and fantasy, displayed on the wall. Soon after, they became co-workers as Billy joined up at the Grill, and in June 2005, they made Buck Gooter.
Since then, Buck Gooter’s been unstoppable – following their first LP on Ramp Local, 100 Bells, Buck Gooter’s finally started to crest their head out of the underground, even garnering credit from Time Out New York’s Best Shows of 2017 We’ve Seen So Far. Finer Thorns is the band’s eighteenth album in fourteen years, and second on Ramp Local, but they’ve been hitting the road non-stop. It has certainly made an impact. The band has managed to gain the recognition of subcultural luminaries like Henry Rollins while touring in both the United States and Europe with A Place To Bury Strangers, Guerrilla Toss, and ONO – their live shows are possibly even more energetic than their breakneck recordings.
Finer Thorns is a crystallization of what the band does best. It’s their most refined record, but by no means should “refined” be confused with “gentle.” In some ways, Finer Thorns is a protest album, musing on the environment, violence, resource allocation, and colonialism- spoiler alert: they’re not into colonialism. From the outset, on opening banger “Peace Siren,” Billy’s manic howl is buffeted by melodic synth sequences, a crisp, pummeling drum machine, and distorted guitar, detailing the way music can be used to promote empathy and understanding. Other songs function as a damning cry, such as “Joshua Rising,” the first Buck Gooter song to feature a guest appearance. Travis, who fronts the gospel industrial band ONO, begins with the classic hymn “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” before the track sinks into a dirgeful warning and rallying cry to tear down the wall (read: borders). At the song’s end Turtle’s low, soulful moan has a few choice words on the U.S. president – “As the wall comes tumbling down/We’ll eject the smirking clown/Don’t need no racist fools around.”
I wouldn’t be doing the band justice if I didn’t touch on their sense of humor. The cover on Finer Thorns is hysterical for a few reasons. One – the “Gooter” patch on Billy’s jacket in the picture references Kenneth Anger’s monumental short film ritual Lucifer Rising, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking Buck Gooter doesn’t exactly scream chaos magick, but it also nods to a time that Terry bought a vinyl boxset of Bobby Beausoleil’s soundtrack to the film for $75 in a blackout stupor, and woke up with a head full of buyer’s remorse. Billy took the record off his hands. Two – the drawing beneath the lyrics on the back is one of Bryan Lewis Saunders’ daily self-portraits, and it’s one he made while attending a Buck Gooter show. Appropriately, it’s called “Daily self portrait #11,182 – Listening to Buck Gooter while blind. Day 4.” Or – God – what about the absurd, not-subtle-whatsoever lyrics to “Skunks are Cool” that you can read on the back, in which Terry calls skunks “so political with that perfect smell (oh yeah)?”
Doom and gloom, this record is not. But meaningless, it is also not. Finer Thorns shows a band that is working their ass off hard, saying something, and having a good time while doing it. Luckily, they’re taking us along for the ride.
I met Ryan Hall of Whited Sepulchre Records this most recent January. Hall and I had more than a few mutual friends, which is fairly common after you’re lurking in the musical underground for a handful of years. In addition to WS Records, Hall also operates the long-running experimental podcast Tome to the Weather Machine, and asked if I’d sit down for an interview. Could not have been a better experience – we talked through growing up with extreme religion, sobriety, Marilyn Manson. You can hear all that at this link. I played downtown Cincinnati bar MOTR with Human Program and my recent friend John Bender.
Hall and I began trading emails and texts shortly after. I became more familiar with his label, and decided to stock up on Whited Sepulchre Titles. The first record I listened to from the catalog was Midwife’s Like Author, Like Daughter, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. For those of you unfamiliar with the American Damage tape releases, much of it is experimental but melodic – take Chelsea Bridge’s Jo or Autumn Casey’s This Is No Dream. Midwife is the drone-pop solo project of Madeline Johnston, combining minimal, evocative acoustic orchestration – guitar, piano, etc – with her gentle sighing voice. The obvious sonic comparisons here are with Liz Harris’ work as Grouper, Julia Holter, but the lyrics in Midwife are more personal, more cathartic. “Your God hates me/he can’t feel my flesh/he leaves me panting like a dog/at the edge of your bed,” she incants on the second track “Name,” paraphrasing/referencing/reworking a Thalia Zedek song.
There is a deep, perpetual melancholy throughout Like Author, Like Daughter, and it drenches every plucked guitar string. Perhaps the most insidious part of the album is that it’s also so goddamn memorable. Johnston’s mastery of repetition and melodic hooks makes for songs that are sure to roll around your cranium for days. Few artists can wield a sadness so catchy.
It’s fucked up actually. I just went through a mind-numbing couple of days dredging up email contacts for sites where I hope to get some coverage for American Damage and American Dreams releases. We’re talking multiple hundreds, and I looked up every single person. A lot of it was a slog, I’ll be honest, but I also found so many people dedicated to just showing off music and art they were interested in. Total labors of love. For my money, the smaller, the better. I love reading individuals talking through their days, their experiences, their interpretations of art, and I think perhaps that is something lacking in a lot of music coverage these days.
I respect the journalistic side of music, obviously – I do some for a living! Analyses and histories can be invigorating and important, but what about creative or personal writing? What about talking through how music makes you feel, the stories it imparts, the effects that linger?
I think perhaps I will start doing some of that here. This will not be done with any regularity. It is for my amusement, and maybe to spotlight some titles I’m carrying at American Damage that I want to write about. Hey, maybe you’ll want to buy them afterwards. I’m not going to be stopping you, and I’m sure as hell not going to be complaining.