Spears Into Hooks
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Saturday, May 29 1999, 3:17 PM
Thirty-two years of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza have begotten Meira Asher. Her angry music rattles with the prophetic rage of a punk Jeremiah. Hope is a stranger here; survival alone produces this death-filled music. The album dedication is "To human beings who practice consciousness in a world where genocide is a boring item, documented only in function of economic interests." That is as optimistic as Asher gets, for the pervasive presence of imminent death is a commonplace of this album.
Spears Into Hooks is Meira Asher's second album, one in which she attempts to assemble a coherent electronic opera. Its purpose, according to her record company's publicity materials which discard both reasonable historical comparability and modesty, is "entirely devoted to the socio-political crisis in Israel/Palestine, taken as a model for the ethnic/religious/geopolitical conflicts around the globe and throughout history."
In the first of two tracks entitled "Shahid" (Arabic for 'martyr'), Asher enters the world created by military occupation of Palestinian lands. Against a background of scratchy and monotonous percussion, she chants an internal liturgy of martyrdom. The English language song text uses the voice of an about-to-be bomber, a ready young martyr for the nationalist cause. Invoking the counter-image of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish physician who massacred twenty-nine Palestinians at prayer in Hebron and whose grave has become a sanctified pilgrimage site, Asher specifies the dynamic of violence and counter-violence created by the Israeli occupation. It is a system that joins nationalist hatreds and economic oppression together, or in the words of this Palestinian resistor "you stuffin' his fuckin' face with butter, as we're eating weeds down in the gutter/ subjugated by your nation." Asher seems to see no escape from this cycle of retaliatory inter-communal violence or the ugly concept of religio-nationalist martyrdom, the political honorifics for death so passionately denounced in Jose David Orozco's murals. The song acknowledges the vision of everlasting paradisical life that motivates "Shahid," yet this belief in the possibilities for a positive death remains alien to Asher's bleak vision.
After a raw-edged and near-wordless second "Shahid" track, Asher opens up with a masterful and driving aria of pain and rage entitled "Dissect Me Again." At full scream, she voices the Dantesque imagery that emerges from a Palestinian prisoner being tortured, beginning with a cigarette shoved into his face. Asher pours herself passionately into this vocalization, done in rapid Hebrew, and the result tortures listeners. The suffering embodied in the song produces an anti-anesthesia, one that transfers pain and the wishes created by the extremities of physical suffering into ears that prefer the false decency of refusing to hear.
If it was not already clear, Asher's fixation on death, both individual and mass, emerges in the next track,"The Flood." In a slow and eerie voice she reads a loose translation of lines from Genesis 6 and 7, a first-person announcement of divine intentions to clear the world of corruption and sin through floodwaters, and overlays it with Palestinian voices describing the effects of rubber bullets, sampled from Michael Khleifi's documentary, Intifada. Beyond the mythologizing overreach of the comparison (bad political comparisons are one of her weaknesses), as Asher repeats the words "die, die, die" the strength of her fixation becomes evident. The difference between her exaggerated embrace of death's advent might be illustrated by comparing Asher at this moment with Mahmoud Darwish's short poem, "Intensive-Care Unit," where a consciousness is aware of transition and movement, together with the tugs of life. For Asher, death is a broad existential solution.
The traumatization of the World War II death camps appears in "Weekend Away Break," a paean to Birkenau mixed with sampled Strauss waltzes. A chorus of "Birkenau, Birkenau, Birkenau" rolls off Asher's tongue with a lilting aesthetic rather than the historical curse that the towns name became. With lines like "and as evening sun sets on the forest,/they'll be bathing and smoking away," Asher toys ironically with death camp imagery, suggesting an intellectual luxury that an increasing distance of time creates.
Although immediate rage disappears in the Kurt Weill- influenced "Tiring Night," the song continues to express many of the themes already explored in Spears Into Hooks. Recorded together with a Macedonian popular orchestra, "Tiring Night" tells of a mother's forced abandonment of her child and disappearance together with soldiers. Like other near-death voices in Asher's oeuvre, the mother knows that she is dead even as she sings this final piece. "Make sure my features are branded to your brain, cause resurrection is my game," she finishes. Despite some very innovative line readings and thoughtful verses, "Me Last Granny" repeats the previous theme: a loved mother or grandmother disappears into irremediable death.
In "Vio Smear," Asher enters into an internationalist punk mode that expands on her dark vision born of Middle Eastern violence. With her voice dragging the words out together with bass and drums, Asher propels forward images of "bloody slaughter with emotion," "crucifyin' nigeria ebola and diarrhea," and "holograms of dying babies on my couch." Violence infests this vision, one that has deteriorated into severe antipathy towards life: "the more I see the less I care to be," says Asher. Nihilism has set in. Asher's hostile exile is a far deeper phenomenon than her hatred of nationalism is. Rather, Asher's rejectionism is in dialogue with a human nature that can produce endless cruelties.
The album concludes with its most poetic song, "E un Uomo," a response in Italian to a poem by Primo Levi. Asher holds her voice low, in an amplified whisper, and relies on the support of effective electronic texturing. The song's lyrics are thoughtful, reflective and summarize themes that have run through this album.
Meira Asher is the polar opposite of the classic Israeli rock chanteuse in the tradition of artists such as Achinoam Nini, Yehudit Ravitz and Chava Alberstein. While each of these singers has produced powerful protest anthems, Asher has turned her back on all this. Instead, she has immigrated to Germany and now lives in Berlin, a gesture that accepts the site of mass death and a Jewish communal graveyard as a new home. This is an album of departure from the immediacies of the Middle East, which on one hand entails cultural re-Europeanization ("I'm talking to Europe," she states in a Swiss newspaper interview) and on the other relies on an inescapable commodification of her Jewishness. The image of a shaven-headed woman singing "Birkenau, Birkenau" to a German audience draws on a traumatic history for its dramatic content. Ironically, her choices force Asher into a morality-intensive performative mold: in Spears Into Hooks, Asher performs the Jew who has learned hard moral lessons, rejected her flawed culture, and can now speak with enlightenment. It's a very old and boring historical role. These songs sell borrowed suffering.
Spears Into Hooks ultimately tries to make an unworkable political premise work. For those who wish to live in this world, death is neither attractive nor intrinsically liberatory. A music that fetishizes death cannot transform the present and infuse it with meaning; this is a music of negative romanticism.
Spears Into Hooks is Crammed Discs release