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Judgement Day: Peacocks / Pink Monsters (4/13/10)
Judgement Day: “Cobra Strike”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Judgement_Day_Cobra_Strike.mp3|titles=Judgement Day: “Cobra Strike”]
“Artistic vision is a tricky thing,” writes Anton Patzner, violinist and de-facto spokesman for Judgement Day, in the opening notes accompanying the group’s latest album. “On one hand, a strong, clear artistic vision is the essence of ambition, guiding and pushing the artist to new heights of achievement. On the other hand, it can be a dangerous inhibitor, a boundary outside of which no other ideas are valid.”
With this auspicious introduction, Judgement Day traverses the fine line between its own boundaries and limitless ambitions to bring forth Peacocks / Pink Monsters, a work of truly monumental heights. Known for its unique brand of string-borne heavy metal, the instrumental Bay Area trio has gone from busking in the streets to sharing the stage with a wide spectrum of acts, all while trying to realize its perfect vision.
Without the use of any traditional rock guitars or rhythm section, Anton, along with cellist and brother Lewis Patzner and drummer Jon Bush, has crafted a wild, vivid record of classical instrumentation and masterful, often improvisational, composition. With a brutal, driving force, Judgement Day crafts hyperactive riffs, intricate arpeggios, and syncopated breakdowns. Peacocks / Pink Monsters, released in the spring of 2010, is the crowning achievement of a lifetime of work, made by wholly embracing the artistic endeavor.
Growing up with classically trained parents, Anton and Lewis Patzner were schooled in the violin and cello early in life. While still in high school, the brothers began playing on the streets in Berkeley, California, where they combined their classical instruments with metal and hardcore arrangements. Speaking with the band, it’s clear how much that experience has shaped the group. “I still go out regularly,” Anton says. “You get to meet all kinds of people; it’s always fun.”
In 2004, the brothers recruited Bush on drums to begin playing proper stage shows and released their debut record, Dark Opus. Filled with material “meant to be played on the street without percussion,” the record garnered critical praise and allowed the trio to tour extensively throughout the country. But the album itself was not a fully integrated artistic expression as much as a collection of the beginnings of the group’s collaborative process.
In the time after the release of Dark Opus, the trio made several sidesteps in its journey. Anton joined the ever-expanding Bright Eyes family, touring and experiencing a musical community unlike anything that private lessons and street-corner duets with his brother had afforded him. Lewis, on the other hand, went to study cello performance at the distinguished Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland, receiving his degree in 2007. Though the group still managed to play several shows a year when all three members were together, no new recordings were released for almost five years.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that these tangents were essential to Judgement Day’s growth as a group. After reuniting and agreeing on a new record, that tricky issue of artistic expression came out with a vengeance. Months into writing and collaborating, the group was still far from satisfied with its output. Barely half a record was complete when all three members decided to drastically change the manner of their art.
“At the time, I was listening to a lot of Eastern music — these Tibetan monks who meditated and played whatever came out,” Anton says. “I was scoring a film about Nepal, and I got really into that idea of letting a force take you wherever it goes.” Combine that concept with the group’s astounding musicianship, and improvisation comes naturally. “Every show, I was already taking parts and changing rhythms and improvising,” Lewis says of the trio’s live performances. “We had just never incorporated that into our recording process before. It gave us an even wider spectrum of sounds.”
Every day, the three friends would conclude their playing with a completely off-the-cuff improvisation session. Hitting the record button and abandoning its once tightly held structures allowed inspiration to take the wheel. “That was the goal,” Anton says. “To see what’s possible.”
Every track on the album contains some of this improvisation, and two tracks are made entirely out of it. Yet rather than feeling as though the music is searching for meaning, the sounds on this record are direct and dedicated. Though spontaneous, everything on this album belongs to an artistic vision that allows for multiple interpretations. “I think that our music is very dramatic,” Anton says. “We could fit in a science-fiction thriller pretty well. For us, this album was about the sound and experimenting with sound, but I think if someone wants to see a narrative or theme in the music, it’s definitely there.”
The album’s title, Peacocks / Pink Monsters, is actually the title of the painting that adorns its cover. And in the nearly 20-page “making of” booklet — a first-of-its-kind “tome-pack” that accompanies the music — Anton compares the painting to Judgement Day’s music. “With all the artwork in the past, I was really picky,” he says. “And at the end, it still didn’t come out just as I wanted.” Inspired by the success of their improvisations, the three members concluded that a spontaneous and collaborative work of art was required to best capture the essence of their own musical journey, and they enlisted the help of three artists to simultaneously descend on a single blank canvas.
Those three artists — Shawn Harris, Emilee Seymour, and Ryan Noble — are all exceedingly gifted. In 2005, Harris and Seymour formed the art group Oxen, beginning by illustrating album covers for Harris’ band, The Matches. All three artists have backgrounds in different mediums, and they came to the collaboration without a singular goal. “We had a party,” Anton says. “They worked, and we just stood back and observed.” The process took hours; several layers were painted, covered, wiped out, and covered once more. The artists dragged their fingers through the thickening paint, set down pieces of cloth and handfuls of sand, and constantly interrupted each other’s progress just to keep things fluid, ever-changing, and unpredictable. Anton compares it to the building of an ancient city, whose roads have been paved over time and again.
There were moments when the painting, guided only by the artists’ inspirations (and Judgement Day’s improvisational music playing in the background), became a vision so incredible that the artists were tempted to call it done. That temptation was repeatedly trumped by a mutual dedication to continue and grow. Ultimately, the life that emerges from the piece does so not from the limitations placed on it but from the allowance on the part of the artists to be limitless. Though one may want to cling to a particular color or corner of the canvas, the celebration and freedom of the art comes from the near-anarchy of the work. “I think that the art is great,” Anton says. “We just let it be what it is.”
At the end of the process, as the oils dried and shapes took form, Judgement Day looked upon this colorful and impressive work and aptly named it Peacocks / Pink Monsters. And though it is true that bright crimson plumage is displayed and yellow eyes glare out of fleshy creatures, the sheer intensity of the piece does not come from its recognizable features but rather by the unseen, the underneath, and the in-between. Like the music of Judgement Day, Peacocks / Pink Monsters is a work of vision — or, as Anton concludes in the album’s notes, “an infinite number of visions.”