Rainbow Bridge (2020) - Fire-Toolz
I remind you that you shine with the purity of a thousand suns.
|Leah B. Levinson||May 8|| 6|
Rainbow Bridge (2020) - Fire-Toolz
Glossy and monstrous, when an iridescent surface starts to bubble, it just shows more to love.
To tell you that Angel Marcloid’s new album as Fire-Toolz is a genre-warped meditation on mortality and being, about confinement and interdependence, about better places, all filtered through a memorialization of their dearly departed cat, Breakfast, is to trust that you can manage and sustain the reserve necessary to allow this premise. When I tell you that the album’s title, “Rainbow Bridge,” refers to the luminescent, spectral-colored stairway our pets ascend when they leave our realm, I trust that you will extend the understanding that a sincere ritual and theosophy may look like this, that no aesthetic is necessarily more appropriate to process grief.
I ask a similar seriousness and reserve of you when I put on cherry red lipstick—just between the five-o’clock shadow that pierces my foundation and above my protruding Adam’s apple held by a thin black choker—and demand according to modern conventions of social decency that you call me a different name than the one you did the day before. I expect that my adoption of the frivolities and flourishes of femininity will be taken as no less trivial than anyone else’s, or, at least, equally trivial. I ask the same of you when I place weight on this in the midst of a global crisis, when I continue to paint my lips and line my lashes for the one or two zoom calls I manage in a day.
At its most fired up, Marcloid’s music as Fire-Toolz sits between that of two of their influences, the yacht-y smooth prog-rock of Christopher Cross and the satanic panic MTV death metal superstars Morbid Angel. The former’s themes revolve around love and oceanic travel, sailing and drifting, taking flight. The latter’s around Lovecraftian beasts obliterating humankind, demons risen from the bowels, cackling. Marcloid’s combination of the two is dense, vivid, and complex. It’s a means for getting lost, for ascension, for suspension, for losing a grip and denying easy legibility. I could chart the turns the album takes, but to what end? The best way to know it is to be lost in it, to experience it as a conversation in passing, a moment in the process of being lost, the same way we come to know others. I can tell you what it means to me.
The weeks before I came out as trans, I didn’t know what I was. Liberated and confused, having only recently shaved a beard that I held onto for too long out of fear, I remember wearing my first dress—a modest blue, long-sleeved, cotton, collared button-down that reaches to the knees—as I went to get my hair buzzed for reasons I now know not.
My drive was accompanied, as many drives were at the time, by the dense, disorienting sounds of grindcore. Graf Orlock and Napalm Death tore holes in sonic fabric while I—sitting in sunny day traffic of a Los Angeles freeway, unaware of how boyish I still looked: makeup-free and lacking any consciousness towards feminizing accessories, body hair, and footwear—felt the new, simple sensations that came solely with the removal of fabric between my legs. My thighs rubbed against one another as I pressed down on the gas or moved for the brakes. This touching was a small reminder of a monumental change headed my way.
All I knew at that point, on a bodily and spiritual level, was that I was in the process of crossing over into a different sort of embodiment that would change my entire relationship to being. I had become alien, and, as such, the gurgling disfigured un-relent of grindcore was the only music that could meet my depersonalization with a sense of vigor. I felt myself becoming seriously (if temporarily) illegible and, as such, seeking comfort in other illegible forms of expression. I was seeking to lose my self entirely.
To be sure, I am currently implicating both Marcloid and myself in the greatest hazard of representation—of taking form, of leaving the boundless realm of abstraction—, that of having a body and finding oneself bound to it. Rainbow Bridge, for all its luminescence, genre-bending, e-girl cybergoth aesthetics, and meditations on the nature of being embodied, is an album that is rarely, if ever, directly about being trans. Press materials, lyric sheets, and write-ups thus far have largely avoided transness, and that’s understandable, there is so much more to Marcloid and their music than the idea that they’re trans.
Marcloid’s own feelings about transness are particular and revelatory. Out of precaution and care, I’d like to reprint a portion of their website’s bio in its entirety, allowing Marcloid to, at least, represent theirself so long as they simply must be represented, representative:
“On paper/on Earth, you could say that Angel is transgender, specifically transfeminine. Angel does not (necessarily) identify as a transwoman however. She doesn't prefer to label herself as transgender, or any other checkbox or qualifier. She finds herself floating between androgynous and feminine on any given day, without any particular gendered words as identifying marks. This is why, if a gender label must be used, she prefers transfeminine. The way she sees it, this term is more of a personality and presentation descriptor than a gender identity. "Identity" is not something that Angel is that interested in claiming.
Angel is, on the level of form, a person, an animal, a sentient conglomeration of cells. But on a deeper and more real level, she is... happening, just as every other person and thing in this universe happening. Her lack of claiming a gender identity, and the world's resistance to accommodating this freedom to do so, are aspects of her worldly experience, but they do not define her essence, which is prior to the world, as everyone's is. Fundamentally, she has no identity. If words must be used, they may as well be metaphor or poetry, as medical terms only refer to the body, and psychological terms only refer to the mind. We are all a single Ocean, and sometimes we manifest as waves.
Although 'she/her' pronouns were used in this biography, 'they/them' pronouns are equally preferred and accepted. To Angel, no pronouns feel ultimately correct, but refusing to use them makes speaking more difficult, so why not.”
Marcloid, myself, and many others are interested in conceptions of transness that reject a concept of destination and arrival, that squirm against the first-thought association of the prefix trans with the noun transition, that view all ways of being as inherently opposite to fixicity, and that view transness as something that often breaks us away (willfully or not) from gratis modes of being, the common rigidity of identity.
Grindcore vocals are frequently performed as low, upsetting bellows and grunts. On the extreme metal spectrum, they sit opposite from the most common black metal vocal style, the tight, high-pitched shriek of a banshee. In black metal, vocals like Marcloid’s can achieve different modes of catharsis depending on the sonic bed below them. Over a claustrophobic, heavy riff, they access a point of struggle for escape: from cruel existence, from the confines of a body, or, when taken on in aughts metalcore, of the frustrated non-start of adolescence. Above an unsettled harmonic foundation, one that’s teleological, one that lifts, pushes towards its end constantly, they evoke escape and ascent, however uncertain their destination.
The first half of “It’s Now Safe To Turn Off Your Computer” is about as close to a traditional songform as Marcloid approaches here, delivering an energizing and convincing black metal creed over an endlessly revolving and reconfiguring, shimmering, frolicking base. A rolling tempo and repetitive riff drives the track until the song’s final lyric, “could death be absolutely safe,” at which point the track spaces out, dust settling. Processed chords and sound design elements sustain the final resonances of the song portion, elongating the track to twice its length, perhaps providing the space to soundtrack and envision Breakfast’s peaceful voyage into heaven. Marcloid’s mesmerizing, glitching, self-produced video emphasizes this section as a space for meditation on mortality as the words “it’s now safe to turn off your computer” sit on screen amidst video sampling and digital deconstruction, deterioration.
When this section occurs it is easy to lose footing as each step morphs into the next, refusing kinetic sense and continuing past its due. It implores me to listen in time as it’s moving, creating a heightened sense of the present, when the next step is unpredictable but always anticipated. It’s a new kind of shifting that functions outside of the usual Markov processes that harmony, repetition, and many genres provide. It’s a refusal of being concrete.
“It seems like death metal is a light switch it's on or off and it seems that when you put on an album it's like turning on the light it's the same speed and intensity till you turn it off. It's one emotion-non stop. We tried to add more texture, moods, feelings. It's kind of like a little roller coaster ride.” - David Vincent / Morbid Angel interview, No Glam Fags #6, 1992
Describing Fire-Toolz’ 2018 release, Skinless X-1 for Vice, Colin Joyce writes, “Jumping between skrams-y catharsis, techno bliss, and dead-eyed drones, there’s this sense of restlessly looking for peace in all the usual places, but mostly being unable to really find it. You cycle through the options, hoping that this one sticks—maybe acupuncture will finally calm your uneasy mind—but knowing that each new escape is ultimately just a distraction from having to deal with the real shit.” The feeling Joyce describes here is familiar to some trans folks, like myself, who do not come to terms with their transness until much later in life. Many of us try different clothes, looks, personas, and ways of relating that seem more suitable to our assigned gender, making our lives pre-transition to be one long, frustrating trip to the dressing room, painfully avoiding the options just a short walk over.
While I can appreciate Joyce’s analogy (and perhaps its resonance with trans experience, my trans experience, was unintentional), I don’t necessarily relate it to how I hear Marcloid’s genre-hopping. Instead, I hear the many leaps she makes as an instance of expression of an individual who has adapted to being multitudinous, variegated, and bright. Each moment, and each listen, an expression of Marcloid’s truth: a fluid, abstract, unknowable thing.
On March 23rd, 2019 I bought three dresses and a CD copy of Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention’s Over-Nite Sensation at a Goodwill. That was the day I sat on Rebecca’s bed and told them, eyes to the ground, that I’d been thinking about transitioning. Nothing so concrete, not “I am trans,” or “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body,” not even “I think I’m a girl,” just that I’d been thinking about transitioning. The next day I listened to Over-Nite Sensation twice.
A relatively late release in Zappa’s career, Over-Nite Sensation is, for me, the perfect blend between the artist’s misguided attempt to pander to airwave sensibilities while overloading songs with surrealist lyrical witticisms and unabashed horniness. The album’s third track features Captain Beefheart (that other genre-crossing, illegible dude whose music I had only recently come to embrace) intoning boldly with all the gravelly bravado of a Jim Hanson Muppet monster over a bar band jam session,
“Well, my dandruff is loose
And my breath is chartreuse
I know I ain't cute
And my voice is kaput
But that's alright, people
I'm just crazy enough to sing to you
Any old way”
Besides the unkind and brilliant synesthesiatic description of the Captain’s chartreuse breath, what strikes me most about these lyrics and their delivery is the way they work together to so succinctly profile a jolly, amiable monster, an ugly being worth loving. Here I found my early-stage trans anthem, a song by sweaty California men beloved by many for their mustaches as much as their mastery.
There’s something about the stupid boldness it takes to transition, to accept a new rubric for which you will be profiled, seen as hideous by some, distasteful by others, and through which you will become unable to see yourself in your reflection for days at a time. All trannies are beautiful, but often, unsettled.
Grindcore and its cousin powerviolence first appealed to me for their cartoonish portrayals of masculinity. The military bark of Infest frontman Joe Denunzio struck me when I first heard it as something like a Six Flags caricature of what it means to be tough while simultaneously inviting us to partake in glorious catharsis of hardcore, driven to an extreme. Napalm Death, one of grindcore’s pioneering bands who laid the seeds for political leftism within the genre, handled the horrors of war with all the subtlety of a golden age comic, which is to say, not too much. Both genres, famously, have the potential to become their own joke, to bask in that alone.
The month I came out as trans, I also began writing a research essay about the relationship between powerviolence and aesthetic cuteness. At the time, I did not necessarily see these two events as related, but I would have to be denser than a Siege track to continue to tell myself they weren’t, and although I have since had a couple of punks-who-were-there commend me on the conclusions I developed therein, I have to admit that to some degree, I had been projecting a bit.
In the essay, I quoted and formed an argument around aesthetic theorist Sianne Ngai, who states, “cuteness is an aestheticization of powerlessness … and since soft contours suggest pliancy or responsiveness to the will of others, the less formally articulated the commodity, the cuter.” This pliancy is of interest.
When we take on softness, we make ourselves more moldable, less defined. We are slime-like: lacking structure, ready to take form or conversely slip away in an instant. On the horror tucked away in the cute, Ngai writes,
“it is possible for cute objects to be helpless and aggressive at the same time. Given the powerful affective demands that the cute object makes on us, one could argue that this paradoxical doubleness is embedded in the concept of the cute from the start. … How are we to read the unusual readiness with which cute reverses into its opposite? Is it a sign of the aesthetic’s internal instability, or how the experience of cuteness often seems to lead immediately to feelings of manipulation and betrayal?”
Cuteness holds sway and flexibility. It makes us plastic, strong and flexible, capable of being molded, of molding ourselves.
I guess I don’t really believe in the abolition of genre as many have framed it. Music has always been an act of fusion, genres have always been hybrid, fluid, never the result of pure creation. If private trackers and mp3 blogs have expanded our vistas of influence, it’s hard for me to see how the resulting collage-works are anything more than new, vibrant, and eclectic genres with their own techniques and tendencies. This is not to say that these aren’t interesting, just that I love genre as much as I love the flight from it. In many ways the two are often one and the same.
As Hydroyoga writes in their Tiny Mix Tapes review of Nmesh’s Pharma, the experiments in style and citation that vaporwave and its developments have explored, “remind us again how music begins with osmosis, remixing a form of embodiment of another.” All genres that I know of have been born out social growth and mutation: taking form, often appearing illegible to some and rapturous to others; they go through a monstrous stage. If I take issue with genre, it’s with the daily marketing exercises that force it into form, that ossify its tendencies and make it stale. When something goes that stiff, we test it for a breaking point, we find a way to loosen it up or we crush it altogether. Music is one thing we hope never settles.
Although Rainbow Bridge is most thoroughly dedicated to Marcloid’s cat, Breakfast (appearing in the lyrics, on the cover, and throughout the album’s videos), my mind, as you may now expect, gets caught on lyrics that may relate to concepts within and around the hardships of transness. The line “this divides like a puppet in passing/ we’re all passing/ walking each other home,” for instance, sets up a triple resonance between death, movement, and transition, operating around the verb “passing.”
Once again, I mention that I have hesitated to sling the baggage of transness on Marcloid and their work, but only before I remind myself that, thus far in my own experience, being trans has intersected with my own life in just about every other area of my thoughts, feelings, and doings. We remember that, as Andrea Long Chu puts it evocatively if erring towards the pessimistic, “It feels like getting on an airplane to fly home, only to realize mid-flight that this is it: You’re going to spend the rest of your life on an airplane.” It doesn’t always feel like the stale, claustrophobic aisles of the cabin, but occasionally it hits as such. For Marcloid, it perhaps hits quite painfully when it does. They intone quietly at the end of “Dreamy #ex Code”—buried delicately under a pulsating, gabber-like kick in an irregular beat—, “so as it turns out, I’m not quite done/ sucking up and fucking up my father’s son.”
As I hear it stated, and wonder whether I am taking the meaning of these words correctly, I wonder what force makes us take part in this carnal devouring of our own bodies. I wonder whether there is (if there can be) a joy in such disfigurement alone. I wonder if transness alone can fuel transness as an energy floating in the ether. I think about passing in a new sense: being in a continual state of moving, transfer, and development. I start to let go of getting there and start to take pride in being in, a constant delivery.
I take the final lyrics of Rainbow Bridge, from “觀音 Prayer for the Abuser (Abridged),” with a chill and a tear:
“To those that inflict terror, I remind you that you shine with the purity of a thousand suns. To those that cause agony to others, I give you the gift of free-flowing tears. I remind you that angels sang in celebration on the day of your birth. I offer the perfect sanctity of this very moment.”