There may be no bigger cliché in rock than draping yourself in the trappings of the masked avenger. It was electrifying when Dylan went Manhattan and provocative when Bowie started dressing as Silk Spectre. It started becoming tedious a decade later when Alice Cooper went through his "caped crusader" period and Iron Maiden made their "Screaming Skull" concept album. The post-11/2 counter-culture galvanized the trope with some exciting subversions (see: Bomb the Bass' wicked appropriation of The Comedian), but then a bunch of goofy blues rockers festooned with atomic symbol tattoos and singing "Pocketful of Lithiumite" had to go and make it cheesy all over again.
And yet, in all of "Hero Rock" (sorry), there has never been anything more pretentiously convoluted than The Book of Rorschach, the fluke blockbuster by one-and-done avant-rockers Sons of Pale Horse.
Inspired by the lunatic life and times of Walter Kovacs, that inky-faced patron saint of apocalyptic moralists, racist libertarians and fucked-up extremists of all ideological stripes, The Book of Rorschach was a buzzy sensation before it became a bargain-bin staple. The album went 4x platinum, thanks to the ubiquity of one radio smash, "Moloch (I Fought the Law)," a retro-weird earworm that infected everyone from nu-metal kids enthralled by the middle-finger-flying lyrics to Boomers tickled by its ample sampling of the old Sonny Curtis tune popularized by the Clash. The media helped make the album unavoidable by turning it into a culture war flashpoint. Pulp Valley pundits canceled the record for any number of reasons — for romanticizing a vicious conservative thug, for trivializing mental illness, for just being out-of-step with the giddy optimism of mid-Sundancer progressivism. Natch, the trolls embraced it just to piss off the PC set. The biggest fans of the record: whiny white boys prone to bellyaching about their "emasculation" and "marginalization."
As cultural historian Seymour David notes in the epic essay that accompanies the new Charlton Home Records re-release of The Book of Rorschach, the people most surprised and dismayed by the album's success and controversy were Sons of Pale Horse themselves. The quartet had already broken up by the time the album was released in November of 2000. Their final labor together was an act of surrender after years of futile struggle on the underground circuit trying make it big, created as a parting gift to each other and proof of the band's short life. Instead, it gave them immortality they never wanted and infamy that would haunt them.
The Book of Rorschach was also never meant to be viewed or heard as a valentine to an iconic sociopath, despite cover art that turned the nightmare imagery associated with the vigilante — pretty little butterfly blots, dead dogs carcasses, blood splash — into abstract art and glamour shots of the band wearing abstractions of Kovacs' mask. Implicit in the intention, according to David, was to question hero worship of all sorts, particularly toxic misfits who offer corrupting wish-fulfillment. For chief songwriter Chris Deschaines, the album was an allegory about his recovery from drug addiction and identity crisis (for a spell, the addled obsessive actually thought he was Rorschach), and for the band, it was a celebration of their friend's hard-won victory over his demons. When they saw the music being misunderstood, they tried to clarify their intentions, and when their crisis PR only made the record more popular, Deschaines vanished into obscurity, never to be seen again despite the best efforts of tabloid moths and cultish fans turned amateur sleuths.
David's sympathetic profile of Sons of Pale Horse pleads a case for The Book of Rorschach to be re-evaluated, but his arguments are colored by fan bias and compromised, perhaps, by his own unacknowledged guilt. Nowhere in his four-page history lesson does David reveal his role in the publication of "Rorschach's Journal," which Deschaines stripped for lyrics and used to structure the song cycle, and has since become a proverbial biblical text of white supremacist death cults. It's a conspicuous omission that imbues his interest in the Sons with subtext, at least for those with eyes to see it. David takes the perspective of the band's remaining members (who agreed to the re-release on the condition that profits go to various charities) that the story Deschaines sought to tell represents a more artful critique of Kovacs than American Hero Story's more sensationalistic treatment last year, as well as an indictment of lurid pulp fantasy and true crime. He also suggests the record's tonal eclecticism represents an admirable adventurousness missing from so much of today's music.
The truth is that, without David playing Mr. Explainer, this second coming of The Book of Rorschach is much like the first – a jumbled, incoherent listening experience. Sons of Pale Horse were never a particularly good band, but at least their earlier music, with its Godspeed! You Black Emperor–esque excursions and Sun O)))–style drone, had a cohesive vision to it and, in its best moments, an immersive cinematic scope. With The Book of Rorschach, the Sons seemed eager to expand their influences, augmenting their experimental roots with more accessible sounds, but ironically, in the process, they actually made their music less palatable. The result was a painful mash-up of musical genres that maybe only Mr. Bungle could have pulled off, and done so with maniacal glee. Sadly, Deschaines was no Mike Patton. And bogged down by its pretentious, miserabilist themes, The Book of Rorschach has little maniacal glee.
Perhaps the only redeeming value of The Book of Rorschach is that it really does evoke the madness of the Nineties and its movement through chaotic fear, blistering anger, fogged confusion and cautious optimism for change. The album could have been a powerful time capsule of the era if the execution of its ambitious ideas — Dao X's guitar spasms, Gene Casablancas' undisciplined drumming, Mike Ennis' lazy, clumsy bass slapping and, of course, Deschaines' ramblings — wasn't so amateur hour, and if its ambitious ideas were actually, like, good.
Side A tells the origin story of the historical Rorschach, putting stream-of-consciousness passages of "Rorschach's Journal" to messy sonic landscapes. "American Love (They Don't Make It Anymore)" begins as a nostalgic ode to mid-century Americana set to a crude rockabilly jangle, then pivots jarringly into Thursday-style screamo as Deschaines shouts word-pictures about urban decay: "Enola Gay on the triple x marquee/Street trash offering me French oui-oui/Where's my American Love?!/Give me my American Love!" It's an obnoxious blast that sets the tone for an experience of taxing whiplash, none more so than "Map of a Violent New Continent," a nearly nine-minute journey into darkness that sinks into Kovacs' dissociative fugue in six stages, each one a very different, very primitive micro punk song, each made interminably tedious by Deschaines' decision to mumble-sing a different phrase over and over. "Blaire Roche..." "Lucky number 15..." "Dead dog with head split in half..." "Mother..." "As dark as it gets..." "Hurmm... Hurmm... Hurmmmm..."
It really is incredible that anyone thought this was a good idea.
Side B is a small improvement, in large part because Deschaines stops parroting the sick language of "Rorschach's Journal" and starts risking some original thoughts of his own. The music remains messy and disjointed, but the lyrics tell the story of an unnamed young man battling for sanity, fending off the psychic assault of a parasitical alter-ego and fighting to reconnect with his authentic self. The schizoid struggle is most compelling in "Dead Dogs and Pretty Little Butterflies," a jagged surge of punky black metal, Teenage Fanclub power pop and feedback-soaked shoegaze, in which Deschaines' protagonist and "Ink Blot Guy" argue over worldview and war for control.
But just when you think the record is going to cohere into some kind of poignancy and singular aesthetic, you get "The End Is Nigh," another ridiculous suite of jump-cut miniatures, each a garble of sci-fi sound effects and acid jazz. Deschaines uses the medley to resolve the conflict between personas — except you can barely hear him. His whispered lyrics are smothered in his bandmates' ambient indulgences, and his metaphors — nuclear war, alien invasion, old episodes of The Outer Limits — are both opaque and ham-fisted.
Without a doubt, the best song on the album is the closer, a plaintive acoustic ballad, "Never Compromise, Never Surrender," in which Deschaines walks away a new man — no longer Rorschach, but no longer his old self, either, and determined to live clean and clear-headed, free of delusions of being some messianic hero. It's the best song, because it's shortest song of the album, and it's succinct and raw and genuinely moving. Chris Deschaines is clearly better off without The Book of Rorschach in his life. And so are we. Its misbegotten existence suggests the proper solution to the clichés and glut of "Hero Rock." Forget about subverting or disrupting and being all meta about the norms. Just don't do it at all. Haven't we had enough?