Friday, January 26, 2007

On These Dark Sets

Posted By on Fri, Jan 26, 2007 at 5:09 PM

The article in the January 22 issue of The New Yorker by Raffi Khatchadourian entitled "Azzam the American" discusses Adam Gadahn, the 28-year-old American who now serves as a member of Al Qaeda's "media committee" and has threatened attacks on the United States. The article, which is a fascinating read, delves into Gadahn's background, beginning with his father's roots in 1960s California counterculture, involvement in rock music and conversion to Christianity. Before he changed his surname to Gadahn, Adam's father, then named Phil Pearlman, wrote and recorded music, and organized "happenings" (that's groovy-talk for "jam sessions"). Khatchadourian writes that after finding God, "Some of his religious ideas were evident in an album he made in 1975 called 'Relatively Clean Rivers.' Pearlman's lyrics evoke a world that has strayed from divine truth into Babylon-like confusion."

Relatively Clean Rivers - "Babylon" [mp3]

There are some interesting changes—that psychedelic break is really unexpected—and some nifty guitar work to go with the Biblical theme. Listening to this song, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine this man's son saying, in dead seriousness thirty years later, "We love nothing better than the heat of battle, the echo of explosions, and slitting the throats of the infidels."

Khatchadourian's analysis of the album only heaps on the irony:


The beliefs expressed in "Relatively Clean Rivers" were not all personal. Pearlman called for peace in the Middle East ("hoping we can all get together, the Arabs and the Jews and melt down weapons into water sprinklers, tractors, shovels, and hoes"), but he seemed to regard the world's governments as too tainted by avarice and hypocrisy to achieve it.


Then, in what to me was a somewhat expected turn, the article goes on to explore Adam Gadahn's interest in death metal music, an extreme spinoff of heavy metal:


It's unclear when Gadahn first encountered death metal, but by 1993 he had decided to learn as much about it as he could. Many of its followers, he found, were cerebral teen-agers like him. They were searching, not so much for a way to release their rage but for an experience that was authentic and powerful.


This seeking to understand a troubled mind by analyzing his record collection struck me as sort of Profiler-esque and also vaguely reminiscent of the 80s, a time when heavy metal-listening teenagers in my hometown would occasionally sacrifice small animals and make pentagrams out of branches in the woods. Or so the stories went. It also evoked the scenes in Fahrenheit 9/11 where U.S. soldiers appear to revel simultaneously in both metal and military violence.

But I digress. The article continues:


"Death metal is an extremist movement," Spinoza Ray Prozak, a former death-metal d.j. who knew Adam, told me. "We're people who don't like modern society. We think it's a path to death, doom, destruction, horror; it is part of the moral way we view the universe. A lot of death-metal songs are about disease, especially the kind of disease that strikes from within, incapacitates you, and there is no way to fight it, and you have to wait for it to slowly absorb you. A lot of songs are about paralysis, injury, necrotic diseases." Where Phil Gadahn in his music focussed on redemption, death metal focussed on decay. Members of the genre generally profess to reject Christianity, but they do so within a religious framework, using the language and imagery of paganism or Satanism, rather than of atheism. Fans who outgrow the music, as most do, often enough become religious.


That last sentence really stands out and is not explained further. Perhaps fans who "outgrow" the music find religion, with its invisible and omnipotent forces, to be another, less conspicuous way to seek an experience that feels "authentic and powerful." In any case, I figured that Morbid Angel would be a good death metal band to represent the genre.

Morbid Angel - "Unholy Blasphemies" [mp3]

"Unholy Blasphemies" (isn't that redundant?) contains the lyrics, "Destroy Jehovah's church / Vomit upon the cross / And burn the book of lies." I'm guessing that Adam Gadahn would have been familiar with this song, even if he did, as a d.j. interviewed in the article states, spurn "death metal's obsession with the occult."

It should be noted that the article jumps to no easy conclusions about why Adam Gadahn, rather than some other lonely kid, turned to radical Islam, and certainly does not name death metal as the cause. Gadahn reportedly shipped most of his death metal collection to a friend shortly after becoming involved with a radical Islamic faction, an involvement that was a catalyst for his joining Al-Qaeda.

Music notes:

Relatively Clean Rivers, originally released in 1975, was rereleased in 2005 and is available here as an import.

Morbid Angel's Blessed Are The Sick, originally released in 1991, was rereleased in 2003 and is available here, among other places.

(Originally posted, in a slightly different form, on Nashville Cream.)

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