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Review: Dante August Scarlatti's Ameritheism
Posted September 02, 2014 by Taylor Peters
WRITTEN BY
Taylor Peters
ON
September 02, 2014

 

 

Notes Toward a Review of Dante Augustus Scarlatti's Ameritheism 

 

I had almost 4000 words written about Dante Augustus Scarlatti’s Ameritheism before I realized I was trying too hard to lock every single thing down. Thank (g)(G)od for the delete key and for intentionally leaving things open-ended.

 

Ameritheism is deceptive because it presents itself as a simple 13-minute-long political punk rock soapbox for Scarlatti. Topics include but are not limited to: abortion, drone warfare, the war on drugs, and gay marriage.

 

Ameritheism is absolutely a political soapbox for Scarlatti. He calls it, “a hyper-digital, scathing analysis of the facade that is religion and politics in the modern American climate.” That had me prickly at first. I’ve got a lot of hangups about political punk rock. Visions of abandoned Anti-Flag records scattered on a post-apocalyptic seashore filled my mind, and I almost let cynicism get the best of me.

 

 

Ameritheism is a remarkable album because it is capable of being more than one thing at a time. It both is and is not “only” a political punk album, though that’s exactly what it is. It seizes and cedes (at the same time) its chosen tools of self-expression, viz. punk rock, the avant-garde, political certitude.

 

In “E Unibus Pluram,” an essay about irony, David Foster Wallace says something that keeps running on loop in my brain every time I think long enough about Ameritheism.

 

"Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. "

 

I know exactly what Scarlatti means. Having listened to “Hotbox the Ozone” I know just where he stands on climate change. Having listened to “Coathanger Alternatives” I know his position on abortion. He calls Ameritheism “an anthology of honesty in stunning digital fidelity.” And yet.

 

I can’t look at Ameritheism as anything but a break from Scarlatti’s modus operandi until now. Auris Apothecary--whose sometimes motto is "We exist becuase fuck you"-- operates like a known secret in Bloomington, trading in more obfuscation than clarity. Scarlatti’s own music--such as last year’s excellent Worship at the Throne of the Oscillator--has tended toward the opaque, instrumental, and droney. Do I look like a “hysteric or a prig” if I ask why it all exists beyond “fuck you?”

 

 

Probably the fundamental criterion for if a piece of political punk is good or not is whether or not it successfully challenges the tyranny of the status quo. This is why so much political punk is so depleted. Political punk forgets that everything, not just what you say and/or sing, is political. It’s difficult to craft a sustaining and convincing Marxist argument (for example) when you’re fronting a band whose music is so conservative you’re functionally a classic rock band playing for a circle pit instead of dads in lawn chairs.

 

Scarlatti has not forgotten that everything is political.

 

When I try to make the words seizing and ceding take up the same place on the page they become unintelligible and silly looking: sceeidziinngg.

 

Seizing: absolute lyrical clarity. Facts, figures, details. There is no sloganeering here. There is research and there is fury.

 

Lyrics from “Cosmetic Poultgery:”

 

“1940s: Manufacture of herbicide 2,4,5-T

1949: Explosion at the nitro plant in WV

1957: Dioxin is identified and the government gains interest

1960s: Agent Orange defoliates Vietnam, taking soldiers with it

1984: Typical lawsuit of $180 million rewarded in chump change

1996: The year supermarkets turned to synthetics

2013: Nothing is labeled still”

 

Lyrics from “Natural Rejection:”

 

(Roughly) 45 billion years ago the Earth was formed from gases exploding and all life sprung forth from it. But how would be begin to know this?

1. By forming and testing hypotheses.

2. Constructing scientific theories.

3. Using observational data.

4. Performing experiments in the field and the lab.

 

Further, and, vis a vis Scarlatti’s previous work, the fact that we can hear his voice at all is remarkable. The fact that it is crystal clear and fully intelligible (“hyper-digital”) is all the more remarkable.

 

 

Seizing: As well the guitar work is legitimately interesting. It does not limit itself to the chunked up power chords so common to hardcore, and it grapples through tones so quick your head might spin.

 

Ceding: Fully a third of the musical performances on this album were generated by a computer. They were not performed by any living human. As Scarlatti explains, “each track was crafted by feeding drum triggering software the individual instrument and vocals tracks to spit out an overwhelming wall of chaotic percussion.” The songs sound unlike anything I’ve heard before, even though the ingredients and generic touchstones are clear.

 

If Lester Bangs was still around I’d ask him if computers, too, can emit a “raw wail from the bottom” of their circuit boarded guts.

 

Ceding: Each of these thirteen songs is exactly 60 seconds. There is no space for expressive rubato, no space for improvisation, no space for extended vamping. Hardly even space for repeated passages. You cut a song off too soon and you risk not letting it get where it wants to go, right?

 

 

In an interview with the Paris Review in 1967, the interviewer asked Vladimir Nabokov about something E.M. Forster had said about “his major characters taking over and dictating the course of his novels.” Nabokov replied:

 


“My knowledge of Mr. Forster’s works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his peoples if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.”

 

Swap out “characters” for “songs,” ignore the fact that Nabokov felt he had to use the specter of slavery to get his point across, and you’re there. “So which is it? Does the song length restriction actually represent ceding or seizing?” Yes.

 

Ameritheism challenges the status quo of experimental music by presenting with absolute and unequivocal clarity. It challenges the status quo of punk rock by slicing out a chunk of Lester Bangs’ “raw wail” with a “hyper-digital” scalpel and by using the exact same pieces to sound almost nothing like any other punk I’ve ever heard. It challenges the status quo of a political manifesto by introducing confusion, the potential for not being absolutely and totally right all the time. It challenges the status quo of a fucked up America by screaming the specific ins and outs of what is fucked up and exactly how at the top of its lungs.

 

 

It should not go un-commented-upon that the artwork and design for this album is absolutely incredible. Of course, take this with whatever grains of salt you’d like, since this opinion is coming from a guy who basically thinks skulls are the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Even so: the upside down crosses, the American flag signifiers, the black metal-style text, all fantastic. In addition to being absolutely inclined to pre-order the thing based on the artwork and the fact that it comes with an incredible 50-page zine, I for one would wear almost any part of the design here on a t-shirt. Fortuitous, because Scarlatti’s got more planned for the Amertheism mantle than just this album release. Coming soon will be what Scarlatti calls an “apparel/activism” company committed to extending the ideas he’s presented here. Every purchase will include a donation to the buyer’s choice of a group of selected activist groups for atheism, LGBT rights, and the like.


Simply, and finally: Ameritheism is a very good album by a very cool local dude that made me think a lot of thoughts all at once. That doesn’t happen very often. It’s an album that’s got clear musical antecedents left, right, and center but that still manages to sound almost nothing like any of them. It is an odd and endearing bit of clarity from an artist who has, up until now, acted primarily in secret and silence via albums that are nominally “experimental” (i.e. they go to no great lengths to explain themselves). Scarlatti’s screams are wrenching, the political point of view is on-the-nose but never trite, the guitar work is interesting, and the drum triggering experiment results in fascinatingly complex rhythmic patterns, all of which rewards repeat listens at a purely musical level. I don’t want to say everything else is icing, because it’s not. It’s in there and I think it’s crucial. But, at the same time, it’s patient, and it’s totally content to wait it out while you make sore that old neck of yours.

 

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