Nicholas Baxter

Influences 3: Catharsis

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catharsis  [(kuh- thahr -suhs)] — n

1. An experience of emotional release and purification,

often inspired by or through art.

2. American anarchist hardcore/punk band, active c. 1992-2002

Two decades ago, before the music industry had fully colonized it, the do-it-yourself underground was a space of exodus and experimentation, often in violent opposition to the rest of the world. This was the context in which Catharsis appeared, one of a new wave of bands to meld metal drama with the raw urgency of hardcore punk. They quickly distinguished themselves by an almost self-destructive intensity and uncompromising anticapitalist ethic. Inverting Christian iconography to champion the struggle of the individual against a hostile cosmos, they took up the centuries-old banner No Gods, No Masters, extending this project of total defiance into their increasingly tumultuous lives. This apocalyptic orientation in turn informed their music, as they sought to hit upon the magic combination of words, harmonies, and rhythms that could spark a global conflagration.

Following relentless touring on three continents and a final catastrophic five months in Europe, Catharsis broke up in 2002.

After a decade of other projects, they reunited in January 2013 for a weekend of performances to commemorate the release of their discography, Light From A Dead Star. I was fortunate enough to be able to accompany the band for the duration of their mini-tour, giving me plenty of opportunity to soak in the incredible transformative energy of their performances and reminisce on the effect this band–no, more than ‘band’: this entity–has had on my life.

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“May the flags all die at the tops of their poles…”

Forging a camaraderie with vocalist b. as a teenager was incredibly impactful to my young mind and budding sense of identity and purpose. That impressionable age is a time of hero-worship, which can just as often end disastrously as beneficially. But in this case, my personal connection to Catharsis and their dynamic frontman helped shape my personal work ethic, determination, and spirit, giving me “courage for my passions and my pains” in the midst of often turbulent coming-of-age years. I now see my relationship with Catharsis as the fulcrum upon which hinged a destiny: ultimately, a departure from the life laid out before me by the traditions of my privileged suburban upbringing.

Ever since, my art has been a representation of this personal rupture and resulting reclamation, its very conceptual foundation being self transcendence through deconstruction–of the human body and other thin veneers and obscurations.

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Samsara LP, 1997

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Samsara, oil on panel, 12in x 12in, 2010

The band’s themes and lyrics continue to be recontextualized, remaining as relevant to me today as when they first opened my eyes to a meaningful life and worlds of new potential over 15 years ago. And I’m convinced that this militant music about radical disavowal and re-appropriation of values cannot be truly appreciated nor understood in the absence of that very context. Frenetic drumming blasts through driving, gritty, wailing guitars, all drenched in desperate screams…a primal intonation borne out of suffering and postmodern alienation, baring the beautiful vulnerability of its makers. For those who’ve deeply felt that suffering, music like Catharsis’ soothes the ears and the ache within; it must surely obscure as a wall of detestable noise to those who haven’t. In this way, context is indeed the threshold through which to enter this experience.

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Screaming along, into the mic offered by b. Only my arm and gloved hand make the picture. (Photo by Rebecca R.)

Of course, the band’s live performance was the the pinnacle of their emotional outpouring; their shows were ritualized incantations powerful enough to redirect the trajectories of entire lives.  Such performative power given to already intense themes can be polarizing, and often led to emotional breakdowns by audience participants or hostile backlash from hecklers. The Catharsis live show, by design, brought nearly everyone out of their comfort zones, bringing the band’s purpose full circle by illustrating in real-time the utter destruction of all human limits and worldly constraints.

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(Photo by Rebecca R. More photos here.)

To be free in the empire of entrepreneurs and authorities.

To be lucid between the airwaves and sedatives,

To trust yourself under the tyranny of consensus reality.

To be sensitive living in earshot of the sweatshops, the stadiums, the slaughterhouses,

With the scent of blood cheap in the air.

To dream of beauty with the stars plucked from the sky,

The angels caged and heroes demonized.

To sing through throats stuffed with the cotton of inhibition,

To write of grace with calloused hands and bloody faces;

To dare to scream, and even cry, proudly, before the jeering eyes

Of the judges, the executioner, and the crowd.

To lie, cheat, steal, and betray as much as necessary

To be honest,

To tell the truth.

To be fearless: to move and follow that movement

Even into death, to live to burn up in the wreckage.

To give everything:

To kiss without apprehension, shame, or restraint,

To make love in the city of hate.

And yes, to be alive,

Alive in the land of the dead. Catharsis.