Monday, July 17, 2006

The sound and the fury

Two big spectacles this past weekend, and two ways to approach the evil that men do.

On Friday night, Emperor put on one of the most unrelenting shows I've ever seen; I left B.B. King's in a daze, barely able to walk to the subway on my weakened legs. I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague and friend Steve Smith's description, and only have a few thoughts to add. One of the things I enjoy most about black metal is its buzzy petulance, the way guitars swarm around your ears like maddened bees. Emperor had plenty of that, but intricate, grand song structures as well, which injected a sense of careful planning into a general atmosphere suggesting end-of-the-world chaos. The mix of screeching abandon and Napoleon-like plotting makes black metal incredibly vital live. That and the unbelievable, head-pummelling aggro, of course.

Sunday night was Grendel at the New York State Theater. I feel as if I'm the only person in town who was bored by Julie Taymor's Magic Flute at the Met, and Grendel elicited the same reaction. The problem with Taymor is that she sucks all extremes out of art. In The Magic Flute, everything was lukewarm: The sad scenes weren't sad enough, the joyous scenes weren't joyous enough, and so on. Taymor is the queen of the middle road—and middle brow—as if she were afraid of anything that'd send the emo-meter not even into but toward the red. Elliot Goldenthal's score for Grendel never raised above basically competent (at best), and Taymor's staging didn't help, since it never developed into actual drama, just an ersatz of it. (Special kudos to Denyce Graves for looking—and at times sounding—like Eartha Kitt, though.) Using puppets to depict Grendel's attackers ensured that the violence was so stylized that it didn't hit us in the gut. All we saw was puppeteers clad in black, bunraku-style, swarming around holding what looked like toy soldiers. The effect was entirely devoid of danger, pain, aggression. It was just…pretty. And pretty is what you get at the American Girl daily show, not the opera.

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