Tuesday, April 03, 2007

TV Review: Screamers

BBC4, 29.3.07
As human behaviour goes, you don't get much more extreme than genocide. Heavy metal pretends to an apotheosis of experience (fucking, apocalypse, serial butchery), which is why, one might imagine, that Serj Tankian's Armenian-American metallers System Of A Down (SOAD) provided the soundtrack and most of the energy in this Storyville documentary detailing the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915, an occurrence that many argue led to the coining of the word 'genocide' and which has still, in the view of many people (including the band) yet to achieve its proper place in history.

Oo-er. This could, it hardly needs stressing, have been a rock doc of an epic self-righteousness and naif idiocy to dwarf even Bono's. The title alone suggested that lump-hammered unsubtlety was to be the predictable order of the day. But while Screamers was far from perfect, neither was it half bad. Given the intellectual capacity of most rock bands, this may be one of the best for some time, and for some time to come.

Aficionados will be unsurprised. SOAD are not a conventional metal band. They blend Armenian scales and prog-rock contrasts of mood and tone colour with iron-pumping thrash midway between Rammstein and Metallica (HM pedants, you needn't write in).

Gig footage was sparing; the crowd were the usual gurning, goateed geeks and backwards-cap bozos with names like Zach and Kyle and Troy with more tattoos than sense, one wondered about the wisdom of preaching the finer points of history. These were the sort of bullhorn-mouthed bourgeois kids who rant plaititudes about Bush and oppression but could in reality no more take a keg of brewski than an Ottoman musket ball. But the band tried offering a message with a most un-metallish contemplativeness and made a decent fist of it.

Maybe this is why - sadly for admirers - not enough attention was paid to the band's musical thought processes. The explosive tempos (alternately motoric and polyrhythmic) and melodies recall the barbaric booming that comprised much of the music of the Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). Armenian folk culture was a common, powerful tool of social identity, crucial surely to members of a racial grouping that had suffered genocide; but as anglophone audences care little about the textual niceties of actual music, we naturally heard nothing about this. The band deserve better; few metal bands have ever produced more intellectually satisfying product.

Any disappointment at a lack of exposure for the band's bigger hits was offset by the laudable aim of downplaying their piledriving technical abilities and foregrounding issues they do at least to seem genuinely concerned about. After all, outside CD sales in Yerevan, where's the percentage in pursuing a political agenda like this?

Screamers did occasionally betray its headbanging foundation, straying on the slightly prejudicial side of polemical, with the only Turks interviewed making dissembling fools of themselves. This borderline misrepresentation, of course, is a lesser crime than parading the heads of the massacred on pikes, but as the band themselves argued, it is from such intemperate stereotyping that genocides emerge.

Moreover, the causal affinity between Turkish atrocities and the Holocaust was presented was simply too neat, too frictionless; anyone with a knowledge of late-19th century German intellectual and political history knew that wholesale pogroms of Jews and other untermenschen were far from unthinkable fantasies only triggered by events in Anatolia decades later. Serious intellectuals like author Orhan Pamuk were quoted in passing in favour of froth-mouthed lobbyists. Peasant Turks who participated in the slaughter were represented, slightly patronisingly as noble-savage dupes of misinformation fed to them by evil ideologues, big I-Ams, Those In Power, the ultimate hate figures of American teen radicalism.
In rural Asia Minor 90 years ago this was probably not so; misguided hatreds foment like fire-water in the hillbilly stills of folk memory for centuries, as it had done against the Jews in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states.

Similarly the subtext that the world was somehow wanting in not acting against Turkey downplayed the trifling fact that the murders took place when the powers of Europe - and the US - were engaged in World War One. If news of Treblinka and Auschwitz took a long time to hit foreign policymakers, the convulsions of Armenia, a Caucasian backwater peopled by primitive bandits and peasants in the eyes of many westerners, took a lot longer to percolate into political consciousness north of Sebastopol or west of Odessa.

Nonetheless, Screamers was a solid piece of work, no mere lip-synching to campus pamphleteering. Visually, it was both seductive and unapologetic, aimed at a far more general audience than MTV addicts. The Armenians, melancholically attractive people whose eyes, as dark as Rorschach blots, stare out from sepia family groups, were not presented as spotlessly heroic victims. There was crunchy and unpalatable testimony from survivors - one story of a man who had seen his own mother's decapitation was a moment of particularly ghastly surrealism, which somewhat mocks the pretentions of those who see themselves engaged in the malicious fiction of rock as world struggle. This footage of elderly, ruined persons was juxtaposed with the sheer plasticity of mainstream rock culture - Tankian and his mates are at one point papped by a combat-jacketed berk of a 'fan'. What the Armenians went through, the band seem to say - sometimes inarticulately, but clearly - was real life. Real life writ large. Very large. Turned up to 11. As stated, life doesn't get more metal than genocide.

There is one grindingly embarrassing moment at the start - not the fault of band or director Carla Garapedian- which augured poorly; 'this band is going to change the world'. Fact - rock has never, and is never going to change the world, merely, if it is lucky, details of that world. Pace Paul Morley, Ian Penman, X Moore and generations of angry young NME hacks, music may be a political act, but one of tiny significance. Rock - and rock and rollers - simply don't matter that much. It is a moronic industry. The so called music of rebellion has, far from proving the soundtrack to a cleansing, liberal fire, actuallly coincided with four decades of rightward shift in the western societies that nurtured it. It deals largely - although not exclusively - in textual and discursive cliché (guitar solo, climactic chord) that reinforces rather than challenges expectations. This does not diminish its exultant, exhilarating power, and much the same can be said for television (punch-line, script concision). Neither does this diminish television.

The best and most thoughtful rock and television make life cheerier, but overblown claims should not be made for either as agents of social change. System of a Down make interesting and invigorating music, and are capable of participating in a laudable TV show which largely eschewed the visual mannerisms of the rock-doc.

The band and persisted and came across less as parvenu, pampered rhetoricians than young men intrigued by their own culture and its unfortunate location in geography and history. They smartly evaded the worst and most manipulative bleatings of Michael Moore's latterday work. Bloodbaths that the band's natural constituency on the Left tend to skate over - Saddam's against the Kurds, Pol Pot's, Rwanda's, the Serbs' assault on Bosnia - were lumped in with Turkey and even Stalin's gulags got namechecked. AJP Taylor it was not - but still made often satisfying viewing.

Looking at the fatly-upholstered interior of the band's tour bus (wonder what some of those Armenian nonegarians, toothless remembrancers of unimaginable evil, would have made of that), it's easy to see why heavy metal bands get some inflated ideas of themselves. But this film, like its stars, forebore to entirely bludgeon its points, offered as many questions as answers, engaged (mostly) in a slowburning insistence on the reality of genocidal tendencies in a historically-actual past and the present alike. There was no sixth-form Marxist, teleologically-convenient version of history where the bad guys wear ties and don't listen to rock and roll.

Rockers can't change the world, achieve that Lennonite panacea that 40 years on so many people still swallow. But they can help to educate. They can do a little, and if they do it well, more power to their elbows. System Of A Down seem to be groping towards this truth, and suggesting that we at least try to find out about other truths.

The music is great. But one hopes the message will last as long as the notes.

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