Last October, I became a huge fan of Sopor Aeternus and The Ensemble of Shadows when a close friend linked me to Sopor Fratrem Mortis Est on YouTube and the playlist continued with A Strange Thing To Say. So I couldn’t help but be super hyped when Anna Varney-Cantodea released another Sopor album last February. I read about it some weeks before it was due to be released and I instantly coughed up the fifty-odd dollars for a hardcopy to shipped to me from Germany as soon as it was available. A lot happened between then and now, though, both with my living situation and (apparently) with the package itself. After getting forwarded from another place, I finally got my hands on my beautiful, textured hard copy of Death & Flamingos.
I felt nervous about this album at first because this was to be Anna’s first frank step into rock. Black metal, specifically. She’s definitely did loud music before. I mentioned A Strange Thing To Say and I found some more rhythmic, electronica-infused material that was originally supplemental to La Chambre d’Echo (currently available in the huge anthology called Like A Corpse Standing In Desperation). I’ve also found that I really enjoy drawing while listening to her debut album, Ich Tote Mich, which has the original version of Do You Know My Name, which you might, arguably, compare to lo-fi industrial. Might. I also went through a phase of really enjoying Les Fleurs Du Mal, which was a stark departure from most of Sopor’s MO for a few reasons. It’s definitely a loud album and her lyrics are way more light-hearted, snarky and raunchy than usual. At the time that I heard it, I would have called it the Sopor album with the most “drag” or camp influence.
I suppose….it still might. If Les Fleurs Du Mal hasn’t lost that title to Death & Flamingos, then the two albums are closely sharing it.
Not only does Death & Flamingos whole-heartedly embrace electric guitars and rock drumming, but it’s also very snarky and very conversational. In the liner notes, Anna writes “This album is based on an interview.” And it definitely shows. Being the tactile weirdy that I am, as soon as I received this album in the mail I immediately took it out of the shipping box and carefully inspected the booklet, which is itself the CD case (thick card-stock cover, backing and spine, with a disc sleave at the end). At first glance, the lyrics don’t even read like song lyrics so much as snatches of conversation.
The song Spellbound starts with the words “Ideally…well, obviously” and Kinder Des Teufels starts with “I never had my tonsils removed”. One of my favorite points of contrast here is one of the songs that I find particularly re-listenable, Coffin Break. Opening lines: “I do take offense / I won’t excuse this point today / it’s such a hurtful thing to say”. It’s instantly (well…almost?) obvious that this is framed as a response to something that was said by someone else earlier. But it actually flows really well. The Boy Must Die also has a few lines that sound “stream of consciousness” that actually turn out to flow quite naturally once Anna starts singing.
And I’ll get to the other songs soon enough, but for now, Coffin Break: the subject matter is, in a strict sense, a simple topic that I think a lot of queer people could relate to. This being the lifelong messaging, both overt and understated, that we are diseased and insane and the lifelong struggle many of us have with it. Speaking personally, I’ve lived with suicidal ideation as a regular fact of life starting from age thirteen or so until maybe about two years ago. When a thought pattern sticks with you that long, it wears deep paths in your head and it’s influence can be felt long after the problem goes down in its intensity. A certain kind of combative self-talk can be tempting for this reason, and sometimes, in the right circumstances, can even be helpful: if the whole natural world is against you and needs you to die, then why not stand your ground and kill everything else?
It’s not the least understandable thing to think if you’re trying to resist a lifetime of conditioning with little to no resources. And the song Coffin Break is pretty much about that, exactly. The use of camp is really successful in these lyrics as well. As with most of the album, there are some really blunt rhymes. Intentionally blunt, probably, and intentionally contrasting with Anna’s more expected poetric lyric construction: “Why should I put a bullet / in my beautiful head? / why not get rid of the vermin / and kill everyone else instead?!”. Talking about putting a bullet in her “beautiful head” makes the subject matter approachable through a little bit of camp while also personalizing it: an idiosyncratic word choice that sounds unique to a person lends credence to the “I” in “why should I”.
Anna fleshes out the thought with:
If I had the power,
I would create the quiet earth
I would erase all human life
From this and every other universe.
On any given day
I’d push that button most happily…
Then Anna drops her singing voice and says, conversationally: ” ’cause I’m a homosexual.” I’m sure this could be read very differently, but stuff like this really sells the blunt, memoir-like format of the album to me. The snarkiness of that tone shift does what many other singers couldn’t do with a guttural metal roar. The song (to say nothing of the album) is definitely a blood-letting, but this kind of humor enables her to show ownership (or mastery) of her pain while at the same time bluntly validating the whole reason for the internal dialogue.
This effect is also achieved in the first song with singing in it, Kinder Des Teufels, which is a pretty direct telling of a story many fans have heard Anna tell in one context or another: a traumatic and possibly dissociative out of body experience she had as a child while being anaesthetized.
In order to achieve the honesty that quality memoiring demands, one needs to be absolutely at peace with their vulnerability. It’s best to lead with, not only the most painful thing, but potentially the most discrediting thing. And the two tend to go together. Often our most powerful experiences, both agonizing and ecstatic, are things we have a very hard time describing to other people. And if you pull off the godlike task of describing it, then you’re faced with the more horrifyingly gigantic prospect of legitimizing it. I hope you weren’t burnt out from all that self-interrogation you did just to be able to open your mouth about this, because we’re only just getting started.
The words that precede our first taste of the chorus seem to address this very anxiety. After an outline of the surgical out of body experience, she says “I’ll tell you something far more interesting / childhood is a fleeting thing, / but trauma stays”. She expects not to be taken seriously and uses this as an opportunity to emphasize why it is serious.
While this album is abundantly snarky, it’s not without earnestness. The song Van Dem Tode Traumen Wir has some superficial sonic resemblances to a few different moments from Mitternacht, which has got to be the perfect opposite-equal to Death & Flamingos, being open and earnest in exact proportion to the combativeness of Death & Flamingos. Tode Traumen Wir is a simple meditation on how your internal validation of yourself is more real than any outside validation, which moves on to album’s final songs, Death Waltz, Charnel House and Mors Ultima Ratio (to only name the songs that have lyrics). All of which deal with the more angsty side of cosmic and social indifference. Death Waltz and Mors Ultima Ratio are particularly tongue-in-cheek and campy about it, though, which is consistent with the album’s use of humor to take ownership of pain and anger. I also just love that I now own an album that has the line “worms will eat your face” 😀
All in all, I’m very happy with this album, both on its own and as an elaboration in Anna Varney-Cantodea’s body of work. Before I got this CD I was regularly listening to POETICA- All Beauty Sleeps, which sets the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe to music, while writing. POETICA is also a very earnest album, so the difference of this new release hit me particularly hard. Luckily, though, in a good way 😉