Written by Greg Schwan
Mother Anxiety – Guillotine Age
> Washington, US
> Releasing November 25
What is the sound of the brick finally being thrown? And what happens after it lands?
In Bill Morrison’s 2010 solemn documentary, The Miners’ Hymns, we’re presented with a requiem of sorts for labor. The doc, scored by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, opens both musically and visually with a somber reflection on the fate of at least a pair of English mines—now revealed by helicopter footage to be buried and covered by strip malls. But after this sequence (which effectively is the end of the story), we’ll transition into the narrative–a story of loss. It’s a story of dignity taken, of dehumanization, of the gears of capitalism grinding “forward”, of disposal and replacement, of building on the backs of labor. This isn’t a unique story by any stretch. It’s what David Simon refers to as “the death of work”. And further in the American context, we see this in the demise and decline of the Rust Belt.
But there’s another version of this story, isn’t there? And what is the sound of it, what is its soundtrack? Mother Anxiety offers a telling set to sound with Guillotine Age, an album I can only explain via descriptors perhaps uncommon to music reviews–confrontational, vengeful, it doesn’t care what you think, because it’s possessed of purpose and clarity of vision. Ever heard a song with a sample of the word “parasite” repeated over 100 times? Me neither. (Yes, I counted.) It doesn’t quite leave one guessing. And maybe one could argue there is a lack of nuance and ambiguity in that, but how much is enough anyway when it comes to dehumanization? This is a question worth asking. To get back to where we started, what is the sound of a brick being thrown?
For Mother Anxiety, after you are lulled into a false sense of safety by the tranquil opener (where, not unlike the helicopter views of The Miners Hymns, the “Morning Fog” is gentle–punctuated with field recordings of chirping birds), a fuse is lit (or soon to be) when we turn our attention to victimhood, when the aural landscape seems to distort–are those the shrill sounds of canaries in the coal mine? Perhaps. Whatever it is, the mood is shifting, the story is advancing: enter arpeggios like adrenaline.
By the time we reach “The Streets Will Flow with the Blood of Old Money”, we’ve arrived at a point where violence becomes very real. A fuzzed out, abrasive orchestra sounds like it’s tuning up. Later, at 24:23, that orchestra will be on the move to a steady drumbeat, to the mansions of old money, to where the bricks will be launched into the air, through the windows. And when we reach the title track, and the bricks have landed, well, Guillotine Age is at its harshest and most rageful. What opens with a misdirection—a few bars of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”—quickly gives way to a harsh blend of electronics, noise, samples, a proper din that punctuates the essence of the work. Unrelenting, unforgiving, and unapologetic.
What makes Guillotine Age so urgent is the context in which it finds itself and the questions it raises. I won’t opine on alienated labor here, but I think this review would come up well short if not acknowledging that this work forces the listener to wrestle with the limits of pacifism. In other words, if you approach this album on its own terms, it takes political violence as a given. The question is not whether violence, but when. If the point was always to change the world, Guillotine Age offers a how. The question I wrestle with is whether that process, that means, can restore dignity. Or does it further erode it? This isn’t a question the work answers, and to the credit of Mother Anxiety and its sole mastermind Ben Serna-Gray, this is where the release creates a lot of space for interpretation. And make no mistake: it’s awfully hard to argue that dignity can be found in a mine buried beneath a strip mall.
- I’m neither a socialist nor Marxist. (Yes, I am aware of this website’s masthead.) But that is even more relevant in terms of approaching this album in good faith. In other words, I’d encourage listeners of all political persuasions to listen to this album and engage with it.
- Even if in other contexts—liberal regimes, theocracies, etc.—political violence remains as relevant a question as ever. Just take a look around, Americans especially, to what is bubbling up all around you.
- It’s too bad “soundtrack to non-existent film” isn’t a genre. That’s what this album is to me.
- “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, upon some quick searching, appears to have quite a complicated origin. Not just as a labor hymn, but as rooted in 19th-century minstrel shows. It wouldn’t surprise me if this very striking ambiguity was known to Mother Anxiety.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This is a work where the form meets the content: it’s an act of violence about violence. I don’t really care what the genre classification is (see the third “stray observation”). And if it’s best described as a soundtrack, it’s antithetical in many ways to what we think of as a soundtrack (at least in a major budget Hollywood context). I.e., it doesn’t manipulate the listener in terms of persuading them to feel a certain way. It only confronts. Parasite, parasite, parasite…