Note: I wrote this a few months before Song of Zarathustra broke up, in Jan. of 2003.
On a cool night in Minneapolis, Song of Zarathustra mounts the stage at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art gallery. It proves to be an unusual venue for the renown twin cities rock band, which is just as comfortable performing in crowded basements and local record stores. But the calm and uncluttered Weisman is sure to reveal facets of the band’s aesthetic that are somewhat obscure. It feels as though they are being showcased as works of art themselves, in front of a crowd that is not unaccustomed to the atmosphere. This fact will become more relevant after a discussion of what Song of Zarathustra is, and what it is all about. After this introduction, I'll dig in The Birth of Tragedy for F. Nietzsche’s aesthetic judgments(*a), then continue to discuss their performance.
Some describe Song of Zarathustra (from here on referred to as Song, as they are locally called) as ‘hardcore’ punk rock, some call it 'Spock-rock’ after the calm and logical character from Star Trek, some prefer to leave the band unclassified. They have released two major works, one conceptual album titled Birth of Tragedy, and another more accessible disc titled A View From High Tides. However, they are best known for their live show, which is characterized by a very loud, very calculated and precise ensemble performance underlying a highly abrasive and colorfully screamed vocal performance. The band is highly interactive, and audience members have come to expect lead singer Travis Bos to charge into the crowd to torment an individual onlooker. It is here that we will find some of the most obvious points with which to critique Song’s aesthetic.
Song relies heavily on a very metered and dynamic approach to music, each member knows what to contribute to the performance that will keep it traveling forward. In other words, parts are selected for their percussive and propulsive qualities, harmonic content is kept to a bare minimum. When a full triad is introduced, it is held for dramatic effect, as a launching pad for the next rhythmic movement. These harmonies are usually accomplished with sustained chords played on an electronic synthesizer, utilizing Song's trademark pipe organ timbre.
The rhythmic focus of Song’s performance is not to be ignored. While at each song’s core lies the familiar 4/4 beat structure, Song of Zarathustra are known to utilize other time signatures and juxtapose them against each other. They commonly trope on steady alternations of 3/4 and 4/4 measures, although other combinations are also used, including one passage of individual measures running 2/4 - 3/4 - 1/4 - 3/4 - 2/4 - 1/4 - 2/4 - 3/ 4! These sorts of rhythmic details require a considerable amount of focus and endurance. It is in facets such as these that we find the origins of Song’s ‘Spock-rock’ classification.
Over this framework we find the characteristic of Song of Zarathustra that is most commonly recognized - Bos’ calculated scream. This vocal approach is itself almost entirely rhythmic, its employment not unlike that of a cymbal on a drum kit - used for emphasis or accenture, to signal dramatic changes or inspire passionate movement. The words themselves are nearly unintelligible through their presentation, seemingly chosen for their syllabic structure before their poetic content. That content itself, however, walks a borderline between suicidal despair and scientific calculation: “it is myself that sets me up again, held the gun but something-something said stop, we’ll go when the head nods...”(*1), Bos screams along an ambiguous narrative that leaves many questions.
Before we continue on to discuss Nietzsche’s insights into what may be going on here, one other thing needs to be mentioned about the faculties employed by this band in the creation of an artistic whole. The music is tremendously audience-driven, fans can bee seen dancing furiously to syncopations unfit for the human body, sporadically pumping their fists in exaltation. Song of Zarathustra cultivates this response, it becomes a part of the expected experience, to see the band without an audience would be hopelessly pathetic. For this reason, the audience must be admitted to the totality of the presentation.
Within this now, let's search out those facets that concern Nietzsche’s aesthetic.
First and foremost, Nietzsche asks us to identify those characteristics which cull inspiration from one of two ancient Greek gods, Dionysus and Apollo. Very simply put, the Dionysian consists of the 'tribal', the drunkenly passionate, that which is inspired by a mortal realization, that which is locally shared and reveled in. The Apollonian exists in a converse reaction to the Dionysian, it is individualistic and expressive, rational and logical, it ignores the mortal realization, condemns the drunken mob-mentality of Dionysian awareness. Before we go on to recognize the camps of these two gods in the performance of Song of Zarathustra, one crucial point must be made: The art lies in the clashing of these two modes of thought. The individual expression exists in reaction to the mortal insight of Dionysus. Art is created in spite of it, without losing sight of it.
The Dionysian should be easy enough to locate in Song’s performance. The band itself performs nearly drunk, throwing all of their bodies toward a passionate rhythmic sacrifice. The audience is entirely enraptured in these rhythms, their feverish dancing unbounded by puritanical morals or social mores. The harmony is passionately simplistic, avoiding Apollonian delicacy. The realization of each individual’s mortality is somewhat suggested in the pure danger of the moment, with crashing bodies and pitches that pierce the eardrums. The mortal insight is further communicated in Bos’ lyrics: “I can’t even begin to tell you, to inform you of this message, that your life shall be struck down, and I now have been plagued with hands that bleed...”(*2); and, “...existence has fit you for display,”(*3).
The Apollonian elements, however, are a bit more difficult to find. Executing these complicated syncopations, indeed even writing them, requires a significant amount of individual skill as well as ensemble performance. Each instrumentalist, in pursuit of the propulsion of the rhythm, has to take a very calculated approach to their individual part, has to count carefully in select passages, and has to listen attentively to the contributions of the others. The necessary skill is to know what will make these pieces move, and what will make the audience move.
This knowledge, contained in each performer, is what makes it happen. This is what brings it together, the Dionysian insight, the people. The calculated and rational creation allows for the expression of the mass of onlookers. The people are brought together to revel in the moment which is made possible through this heavily disguised intricacy. This is the aesthetic creation of Song of Zarathustra, to bring those people together, to celebrate the moment. “Breaking down for life has never felt so right, right now,”(*4)
Song of Zarathustra was started in Sioux City, Iowa. Sioux City! An American municipality that realizes its non-western roots and acknowledges them in name. It was said that Dionysus was from the East, those lands not tamed by Western thought... It took a relocation of the band to Minneapolis, a considerably more "developed" and commercial locale, before all of the elements of calculation materialized. Before the band leaves the stage, Bos acknowledges the role the Twin Cities have played in the creation of the band, and how the enormous support of the locals strengthened its focus. Looking out the tremendous westward windows of the Weisman gallery at the facade of downtown Minneapolis, one can hardly not feel proud of what this city has created - for a moment.
*1. Lyric from ‘Mess of Zero
’ on ‘The Birth of Tragedy
*2. Lyric from ‘With Hands That Bleed
’ on ‘The Birth of Tragedy
*3. Lyric from ‘The Great Longing
’ on ‘The Birth of Tragedy
Full lyric: “she speaks without discretion. holding no intention to confuse the following absent minded, it’s separation. it’s called neglectance. and depending on how it’s viewed as, it’s still certainly stagnant. it has its pretty ways of venting. measure its existence you seem so. close to death existence has fit you for display, and it has resale cast of an amount you won’t exchange
*4. Lyric from ‘Deep Yellow and the Burning Red
’ on ‘The Birth of Tragedy
Fun fact I should also mention: The members of Song of Zarathustra we're notoriously unwilling to discuss Nietzsche among friends and interviewers.
writes: "...all of a sudden you start talking about Nietzsche, and since you say the band wouldn't talk about Nietzsche, I still fail to see what it has to do with anything..."
Nietzsche is significant, firstly, because Song of Zarathustra references his writing quite thouroughly. The particular "co-incidence" that I'm interested in here is this: The Birth of Tragedy is Nietzsche's first book, and Birth of Tragedy is Song of Zarathustra's first full album... Nietzsche's BOT lays out the aesthetic framework of his youth, and I'm here trying to apply it's fundaments to a performance by Song of Zarathustra.