I recently dropped my dad off in DC for one of the many professional sojourns for his job. As I was sitting in traffic and wondering whether or not I would be late to work, I realized that people who had to make the commute twice a day must hate their lives. I was intensely exhausted and miserable from just making the drive for the sixth time in a week, I could not imagine doing it ten times Monday through Friday. As soon as I dropped him off, I changed the music from Sufjan Stevens to Vattnet Viskar’s new album, Settler. The rolling drums, heavy metal guitar riffs, and guttural vocals were much better suited to my mood.
When I read up on the album I discovered that Vattnet Viskar (originally from New Hampshire) recorded it in Champaign, Illinois. This made me happy for two reasons. First, one of my best friends lives there and last September I visited him and we had a spectacular time eating, drinking, hanging out, and going to the Pygmalion music festival. It will forever be a wonderfully fond memory. Secondly, Champaign is exactly where my dad is right now, since I dropped him off on his trip to visit a school in the city and hence the Sufjan Stevens.
Discovering that piece of information made me smile and laugh to myself. In the middle of that intense feeling of frustrated anger and sadness, life gave me a happy coincidence. I don’t really think that it was an accident. Especially given the recent African Methodist Episcopalian Church massacre, Settler could not have come at a better time.
Released digitally this past Tuesday, June 16th, Vattnet Viskar’s metal celebration is hardly the first piece of music to put forth the philosophy that in the face of violent death and human rights atrocities one should embrace life’s beauty. Flying Lotus’ brilliant concept album You’re Dead! was among the first of this current generation’s efforts to musically describe that dogma, and it was never more gorgeously brought to life than in his “Never Catch Me” music video. Most recently, Kendrick Lamar’s last two LP’s have sought to explain to the world what it’s like to be Black and in America. In both cases (especially To Pimp a Butterfly) he has immaculately shown that not only is there a plethora of unspeakable violence but also a rich and powerful cultural experience and history.
I am not suggesting that this album speaks to the Black experience, I am merely drawing comparison between their themes. In the perpetual struggle between light and dark, Settler adds its powerfully post-metal voice to the fray and it is not at all lost among the mountains. These songs perfectly depict life’s awesome cruelty and beauty.
Take “Colony,” for example. I goddamn cannot stand ants. I live in an old, porous brick house in which millions of ants swarm from the depths of the floors and the cracks in the walls to descend vengefully on the donut I placed on the counter one single minute ago or the cat food that Eva Luna had the decency to knock out of her bowl. They are everywhere, and their relentlessness is infuriating. For Vattnet Viskar’s cofounder and guitarist Chris Alfieri, however, ants are fascinating bugs that have communication networks more complex than Google algorithms. How beautiful is that? Painfully so when I think that those ants were just trying to survive before I subjected them to writhing pain with cleaner and wiped them down the drain.
And just like that, we inevitably arrive at the album’s most enduring point: that life is unfairly cruel and all we can do is celebrate it when we can. Just like the ants at the mercy of my hand, our lives can end in a flash. Do your best to live it to the fullest, as embodied in the immensely conflicting album cover. In 1985, New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe was selected by NASA from a pool of over 11,000 applicants to give lessons in space. For her training she was subjected to the “vomit-comet,” in which she had to experience weightlessness in a zero-gravity environment. Instead of being tentative and anxious, McAuliffe’s infectious enthusiasm won out and she joyfully floated around, basking in the glow of feeling alive. She died less than four months later when the Space Shuttle Challenger fell apart 73 seconds after launch.