Tim Macuga and Dan Barrett’s musical project is as much an ambitious and frustrating piece of conceptual art as it is a crushing and soaring rock record. Composed over a five year period, Deathconsciousness was produced with only the most basic equipment, is accompanied by a 70 page booklet describing a dead religion, and features cover art ripped right from Jacques-Louis David’s overtly political masterpiece, La Mort de Marat. The music is excellent, but making sense of the rest of this monstrosity isn’t easy.
Organized as two distinct albums, Deathconsciousness is a sprawling record filled with suggestive lyrics about desperation, nihilism, failure, suffering, and the inescapable progress of time. The lyrics are not poetic nor are they sophisticated, but they aren’t angst-ridden contrivances, either and they suit the macabre nature of the music very well. The music itself is filled with sizzling guitars, massive and repetitive rhythms, echoing synthesizer effects, and dramatic melodies, both vigilant and resigned, that give the album an epic scope.
Yet, despite these severe devices, the band’s name is Have a Nice Life and they title their songs like they’re jokes: “Waiting for Black Metal Records to Come in the Mail” and “Holy Fucking Shit: 40,000” are perfect examples. In addition to these odd contrasts, the band has gone through the trouble of producing a 70 page accompanying book supposedly written by a professor of religious anthropology and history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Whether or not the book has anything to do with the album is questionable; while direct lines can be drawn between the text in the book and the lyrics to some of the songs, it isn’t clear which of the two came first. I am suspicious that the book could be a ruse meant to cover up the fact that all of these songs are intensely personal, but the lengths to which this duo went to cover that fact up is fairly astonishing. A lot of work clearly went into putting this whole thing together, but figuring out how all the pieces fit is more difficult than it should be.
Despite the mixed messages the liner notes inspire, the music is varied, smart, and wonderfully dark. Have a Nice Life combine the brute force of thundering drums with fuzzed-out guitar lines, lead melodies played out on the bass, and emotive, almost yearning vocals. They protract the basic rock template and add a healthy dose of atmospheric sound effects and synthesizer leads not unlike those you’d hear in an anthemic 80s opus. Bits of staccato guitar meet with noise solos, buried vocal mumblings, persistent percussion, and lo-fi stereo confusion to produce everything from meditative non-songs (“Hunter”) to feverish rock ‘n’ roll (“Waiting for Black Metal Records…”) and acoustic balladry with cheap drum loops (“Holy Fucking Shit: 40,000”). The often focuses on texture more than melody, but never at the expense of a strong melodic center. Voices are anxious and thirsty, maybe even overly emotive, but the intensity of their delivery matches the music’s fevered pitch perfectly. The production can be mildly aggravating, however, and sometimes it detracts from the music more than I’d like. But on the whole the under-produced aesthetic works very well.
There are several details that keep the album from being a complete success, however. Whoever wrote that 70 page document needs to be slapped for being too dull too often. The book focuses on the history of a fictional religious sect centered around the person of Antiochus. This sect apparently left behind a number of oral and written fragments that tell the story of a horrifying prophet who praised nihilism and preached a philosophy of suicide and murder. Some of the stories are genuinely frightening and left an impression on me, but the pseudo-academic posturing that fills most of the book is absolutely unnecessary. Long foot-notes, poor poetry, and efforts to sound professional all make the text a trial more than a joy. Also, the aforementioned song titles may seem like a small thing to complain about, but if a group is going to go through the effort to create an illusion of mysticism and mystery, then they might as well follow through on even the smallest details. As it stands, I get the impression Have a Nice Life were unwilling to follow their idea all the way through to its conclusion. Nevertheless, the music keeps me coming back and the entirety of the project succeeds often enough to warrant attention and praise. I am ultimately picking apart something to which I am very drawn. I just want the band to keep falling down that rabbit hole instead of holding back.
Deathconsciousness is available online through Enemies List as an MP3 download only. All the physical copies have been sold, but the label charges a very low price for the download and have scanned the entire booklet into a nice PDF file, which is included with the purchase.