Right now, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness, it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair, we have everything before us, we have nothing before us, we are all going direct to heaven, we are all going direct the other way - in short, the period is so far like the French Revolution, that some of its noisiest authorities insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Some shit never changes; just ask Chuck Dickens. Or if a brick of turgid prose and fabulously face-punchable characters ain't exactly your thing, Matthew Widener will give you the 27 minute tutorial on economic unrest and social instability with Liberteer's debut album Better to Die on Your Feet Than Live on Your Knees. A record that bears close study and gives back what you put into it, Better to Die on Your Feet Than Live on Your Knees has a sweep that can only be described as operatic. If the world were a more artistically just place, this would be the soundtrack to the latest film version of Les Miserables. Liberteer's 17 songs are all of a piece, intentionally written as a whole with repeating motifs and musical callbacks throughout. Widener (who is also one of Cretin's resident freaks) said that was the goal from the beginning, to write, what he called "one long song." And all it took was a wholesale revolution in his musical approach.
"I study orchestration, as best as an amateur can, but I have read the mainstay texts on it," Widener said. "So I’d had this idea for the album, to make it more epic in scope, and I knew I was going to include orchestral and marching band instrumentation, so it made sense to use motifs and arrangements that supported that. It seemed to me song breaks were a vestigial thing. Why write around that concept, if I had all these lofty ideas that ran counter? So I started writing the album in order, first track to the last. I learned that I had to identify riffs I had already written in previous songs, and then foster them into grander statements later. Sometimes I had foresight to do this when writing the original riffs, but other times it was like sifting through mud for gold flecks. What also happened was writing great riffs later on in the album, and wishing they were present and foreshadowed earlier. So I’d go back and insert them, rewrite stuff to accommodate those later themes. So it was a strange way to write, but I got used to it, and the crosspollination started to invigorate me. You write differently when you have the long view like that."
If the thought of banjos and horns rubbing shoulders with your grind scares you, this maybe isn't your album. However, every note of the record has a purpose. Widener said the additional instrumentation had a twofold purpose to conjure up revolutionary fervor and to give your earholes enough of a break to process what you're hearing.
"I found out early on that the ear fatigues without the benefit of song breaks. In grindcore, those song breaks give the ear a rest. Psychologically, we know we can gulp some air and make a decision to continue or turn it off," he said. "Typical songwriting gives the listener agency. But this operatic method was going to alienate. So I wanted to simulate the same effect that a song break gives, and decided I’d compose a non-metal instrumentation part every few minutes, which would give the ear a break from distortion and blasts. This worked, I think. It also gave me time to seed the major leitmotivs, which came instrumentally as either grand introductions or culminating recapitulations, depending on where in the album they appear. I really like composing in this way, turns out. For other bands, the traditional format is best. Liberteer albums will continue to be one long song. It’s going to be inseparable from the project."
The Spirit of '76
Solo project Liberteer builds on expands the themes Widener had touched on with his prior band Citizen. With that trio, Widener had rallied for a new breed of patriotism that put the the populations' interests ahead of those of the state. To provide that requisite rallying cry he had extensively studied national anthems, dissecting them for musical themes. Those studies came in handy when it came time to write for Liberteer, which relies on more than your friendly neighborhood power chord to stir the emotions.
"The most important thing about my early studies on nationalistic and folk music was learning the proper modes and key changes when it comes to stirring music. Most of which aren’t used in metal," he said. "Even the minor key is tampered with in extreme metal, with heavy emphasis on the tritone, the minor second, and the fourth—all intervals that smudge the tonality of a key, that rob it of expectation and psychology. I’ve never been too afraid of using major keys in my metal. Take a look at Cretin. But I think studying those historic pieces taught me a lot about songwriting in general. So that stayed with me. There aren’t any explicitly sampled songs on the Liberteer album, like in Citizen. I think it’s more the concept of learning to unlearn. I do have a fondness for the early Americana musical idiom, which is really a European transplant, and use a lot of it in Liberteer. Some people draw a conclusion about that, but I’m not really trying to make a statement with it. I just think it sounds emotional, in a stirring way, with instrumentation that evokes a groundswell, of a primitive and participatory nature."
An album with orchestration this demanding requires a conceptual foundation that says something a little more involved than "this shit sucks." Widener makes you realize just how fucking lazy so much of our so-called political grind really is. Too many political bands are content to wind up the audience for half an hour, preach to them in the most vague terms and send everybody home self-satisfied and content that they've been appropriately outraged at the acceptable targets. Instead, Liberteer demands you get up off your ass and really wrestle with issues of personal autonomy and collective responsibility in ways that are more nuanced and demanding than any number of albums you have on your iPod right now.
"I think that’s the very intention of anarchism, how do you reconcile liberty and the collective, how do you make both work together? When they seem to be mutually exclusive? That’s the ongoing dialogue of anarchism, really. And so you might be mistaking my honesty and inclusion of differing anarchist thought for the total lack of an ideology. The album does have an ideology when compared to other political viewpoints," Widener said. "It can be somewhat of a litmus test, in that many will identify with some elements of the lyrics, but overlook the rest, like a confirmation bias. American Libertarian free-market types will ignore the socialist elements and focus on personal liberty. But it’s not fair to do that. Because a big part of the album is about social responsibility and compassion, and I wouldn’t rank U.S. Libertarians as being very high on the compassion scale, with their unkind interpretations of 'fairness' and narrow definitions of 'liberty.' Theirs is an ideology totally incompatible with anarchism. They exalt capitalism as some arbiter of fairness, and to the anarchist, capitalism creates a hierarchy of economic oppression, the exact opposite of liberty."
There are themes at play on Better to Die on Your Feet Than Live on Your Knees that will appeal to Tea Party patriots and outraged Occupy Wall Street protestors alike. However, when listeners sit down and really wrangle with what Widener is saying, they'll find he's advocating for a very specific breed of social anarchism.
"I think the real reason the album seems different from most political grind is because of this social anarchist element," he said. "It’s funny, most bands that either self-identify or are categorized as anarchist, at least in punk and grind, are of the individualist anarchist branch, where personal liberty and expression trump the social. But Liberteer is strongly social anarchist. So the tone feels a bit different, doesn’t it? I know singing about tolerance and getting along with your neighbors isn’t very metal, ha! But I’m not too concerned with metal heritage, or fitting into a whine-and-grind circle-A stencil aesthetic format. I believe there’s room in grindcore for hope."
Topics like patriotism and social responsibility may sound corny in grindcore, but Widener has spent a lifetime coming to terms with his relationship with society and his fellow citizens. That includes a stint in the Marines, where this (unreformed) Dungeonmaster first grappled with his place in the broader culture. The topic of metal musicians and their relationship to the military continues to fascinate me, and Widener said his experience with the Marines was an instrumental step in his political evolution.
"I joined the Marines out of a misguided sense of machismo and desperation. My patriotism was borne of fear. I know this firsthand," Widener said. "So when I talk to a nationalistic person, they can’t bullshit me, I’ve been there. I believe that emotions are symptoms of existential anguish and other fears caused by this anguish. Ultimately, our concerns drive us. And these emotions, the tricky thing about them is that they feel essential, they feel like imperatives, and we easily mistake them for the thing in itself. Like a prepackaged truth. How fucked up is that? It’s dangerous. It’s like if doctors mistook the symptoms of a disease for the disease itself! When I was young, I didn’t realize that we’re supposed to question our feelings. I just wore them like a fucking football jersey. Patriotism was probably where a lot of my fears were channeled. Typical stuff: fear of dying, fear of being poor, fear of the other. I was not popular in high school. I was still a virgin. I read comic books. I was a Dungeonmaster. The military promised some sort of vague sense of power or righteousness. So I enlisted. They nab a lot of guys that way. By the way, I’m still a Dungeonmaster, and have roleplayed every Friday since 1982, ha."
The trip through the military, with its rigid hierarchies and emphasis on blind obedience, set Widener on the path to introspection and social awareness.
"It wasn’t until much later, in my thirties, that I worked on myself, read a lot of philosophy, psychotherapy, understanding the ways I trick myself, and really put the time into sorting through my bullshit," he said. "I came out the other side realizing that nationalism is all about identification at the exclusion of others, built around prejudice and an inflated sense of the self. Like, is there really any reason to be proud of where you were arbitrarily born? For fuck’s sake, it’s a justification to practice xenophobia and tribalism, all those things Ernest Becker wrote about. But I don’t have any regrets. I wouldn’t want to take it back. I like where I ended up, and it took that to get me here, along with the rest of messy living. But it’s not a choice I’d make again. And I actively discourage people from enlisting. There are better ways to learn life lessons."
Liberteer packs a life's worth of lessons into less than half an hour. When you survey the musical, economic and political unrest that characterize late 2012, it's a far, far better thing that Widener has done.