There comes a point, where a shock rocker needs to stop. You can only frighten the mainstream for so long before you assimilate and your face has been bought and sold a million times. Consider Marilyn Manson. In the late 1990s, there was an aura of mystique surrounding him. At the height of his prowess, the man was able to perfectly encapsulate everything that a certain person feared. Here was a sexually promiscuous, androgynous nihilist who spat in the face of God. This was a man about whom a rumour about having surgery to help fellate himself didn’t seem that outrageous. One who worshiped Satan and open about his rampant drug abuse. Videos for ‘The Dope Show’ or ‘Beautiful People’ showcased a well crafted persona that was terrifying to Middle America. He was to the baby boomers what Alice Cooper was to the Silent Generation: The degradation of society personified and snorting coke off a bible. But after 10 years of making a section of populace quiver in their boots, something happened. Time kept on rolling and Manson stopped being frightening. The broadcasts kept up their surreal and aggressive tendencies but to diminishing ends. That brand of Brothers Quay/German Expressionist brutalism was done, dusted and repacked many times over. It’s been too long since he was truly relevant, but that’s not to say he hasn’t produced good music. His latest LP, Heaven Upside Down, is a testament to that. It’s so easy for the actual songs to get lost amongst the thrill of the theatricality. The simple fact is that this band had the ability to craft many great metal tracks. Heaven is the tenth album in his repertoire and it’s more or less a decent affair. Reliable and even vaguely surprising, but mostly lacking bite.
Manson is a true song and dance showman in the Howlin’ Jay Hawkins sense. The moment he grabs a microphone and spits fury, you can feel it oozing from every pore. He knows how to play to mine the greatest amount of drama from what he does, always knowing exactly when to scream, roar and whisper. Having such a confident band leader to manage the proceedings lends a vitality to what’s here. Take the lead single, ‘We Know Where You Fucking Live’. It’s a straightforward slab of industrial metal. It wouldn’t be out of place on records such as Smells Like Children or Psalm 69. But as that chorus hits and things need that extra blast of fury, Marilyn barks as a hellhound fresh off the leash. The lyrics spit hot acid at drone warfare and you almost see the saliva emanating from his mouth. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, there is ‘Threats of Romance’. He casts himself as a kind of Bowie impersonator by way of Al Jourgensen. It’s incredibly charming and gives a a subtle uncertainty to the proceedings. It’s hard to pin down exactly where he might go and what he may try to do with his voice and his performance. It’s in these moments of ambiguity and unrelenting rage that the collection derives its strength.
Except for a few key cuts (‘Blood Honey’ and ‘Threats of Romance’), there’s a total lack of musical identity. The album takes heavily from aggressive metallic sound Antichrist Superstar and Holy Wood. This feels like a lost take that could easily belong to the same era. But that was an age ago. Curiously, this record skips the blues-inflected style that made their last LP, 2013’s The Pale Emperor, so intriguing. On the positive end, there is a real musical standout here and that’s ‘Saturnali’”. It’s a good old-fashioned eight-minute groove that sits right in the centre where it belongs. It starts at a point of relative comfort and builds in a tight crescendo. Nice, slow, head banging stuff, it’s a real delight. But the real issue is that the music doesn’t conjure the same magic. While it’s important to note that these performances aren’t phoned in and are executed with passion, they lack fluidity. While it is nice to go back to halcyon days of two decades ago, it does feel reductive too.
So after 30 years in the business, Manson’s time as shock rocker is finished. The band itself can still write a few decent hits, but the power that Ziggy Stardust’s nightmarish cousin held is gone. The sacred cows that he once tried to slaughter were long ago ground up into McDonalds. His attempts to tear down the spectre of religion pales in comparison to what the churches have done to cover their own asses. The violence and overt sexuality that he once tantalised is nothing to the desensitised. With a single Google search, you can find videos of beheadings, live suicides, and sexual depravity. Never forget that DeviantArt still exists. His rebellion has been co-opted, normalised and sold like everything else. Lady Gaga has attempted similar stunts and her position in the pantheon of fame is hard to dispute. There’s nothing to fight anymore. The macabre no longer frightens us because we know how scary reality really is. This man was cited as the chief inspiration for the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. We knew then as we do now that that was bullshit. But in the wake of Las Vegas this week, it’s alarmingly clear that we’re not OK and we won’t be for a while. Shock Rock needs to stop because it can’t achieve its aim anymore. Our boogeymen are dying and, in their place, only people remain. And that’s too frightening to bear thinking about. Will Murphy