The Japanese have a saying along the lines of "the nail that stands out the highest will be hammered down the hardest." Musician/writer Boyd Rice has experienced more than his share of hammering over the course of his career, but he refuses to bend to the pressure. He has been vilified by the Religious Right for his position as a magister in Anton LaVey's Church of Satan, pilloried by the liberal left for his support of "aesthetic" (nonpolitical) fascism, criticized by the music press for a perceived lack of musical talent and his interest in unhip artists like Tiny Tim and the Partridge Family, and labeled a "bad influence" in general by the German magazine Der Spiegel.
These attacks on his character and philosophy overshadow the fact that as an artist, Rice has created a body of work that is as iconoclastic and intellectually broad as anything written by the Beats, free-jazz impresarios, Oscar Wilde, the Marquis de Sade or the authors of the Declaration of Independence. His artistic output exemplifies the American ideal of rugged individualism while proving that nonconformity inspires the same amount of suspicion and ignorant violence in the Land of the Free as it does in the Land of the Rising Sun. Of course, if you write a song titled "Let's Hear It for Violence Towards Women," as Rice did on his Hatesville album, well, folks are bound to react with a little hostility. But that particular number is just one moment from a career that has simultaneously plumbed the depths of lovely hate songs and expanded the horizon of hateful love songs.
Since the late 1970s, Rice's albums --many released under the name Non -- have explored wildly diverse avenues of personal expression. From the austere, martial power-drones of Blood and Flame (1986) through Music, Martinis and Misanthropy's unlikely marriage of lounge music and social-Darwinist lyrics (1989) to his collaboration with Rose McDowall on an album of emotionally charged cover songs of '60s-era pop (Season in the Sun), Boyd Rice has seemingly defied both convention and common sense. How can a musician attract an audience if he leaps from genre to genre? The truth is, Rice has maintained a thematic focus in his music that both carefully cultivates and remains true to his original audience -- himself.
"When I started NON," he says during an early-morning phone conversation from his home in Denver, "I wanted to create music for myself and for other outsiders. There was no one making music I was interested in, so I made my own." This drive to satisfy an audience of one is the spark for his latest album, Receive the Flame (Mute). "I took a long time recording it. I wanted it originally to be sound portraits of famous people, but it mutated into this other thing. The themes on the album represent my concerns of the past few years -- for example, "Solitude." I was too involved in other people's lives, and I just wanted to lock myself in my room and experience solitude, pure bliss.... I have this album, Blood and Flame. People always ask me, 'When are you going to do another album like Blood and Flame?' I think this one is a lot like that one. It has the same minimalist ideas, but this is the first time I used only real instruments."
Those real instruments include electric guitar, brass, organ and electric violin, but combined with Rice's minimalist ideas, they blend into sounds both familiar and strange. "Alpha," the album's opening track, bursts into life with a portentous swell of multilevel drone fields, as if a half-dozen symphony orchestras were tuning concurrently. The hammered, staccato chord loops of "Spectre" are reminiscent of the straight-line rhythms that made up Phil Spector's monomaniacal "wall of sound" arrangements for the Ronettes, welded to the rising shriek of a turbine engine. The aforementioned "Solitude" is a slowly revolving carousel of organ, strings and percussion (castanets, maybe?) that somehow sounds more like bells than the sum of its parts should allow. By the time you reach "Omega," the final track, the drones and howls and rushes at beauty that stream through Receive the Flame have grown to monolithic proportions, then descend in pitch until they flicker from existence. The journey is wordless, uncluttered by lyrics or even voices, a panorama of intuitive data that conveys as much about Rice's beliefs as any manifesto or essay he has written.
At the core of those beliefs is a personal pursuit of balance. To achieve that balance, Rice has willfully explored the darkest parts of himself and recorded them for posterity. He has spoken publicly about his "harsh, Satanic philosophy." He has praised Hitler's attempts at a pagan revival. Yet he has also recorded early love songs by Nancy Sinatra and Dolly Parton and extolled the virtues of Martin Denny's exotic lounge compositions. In a 1999 interview with journalist Gavin Baddeley, he stated, "I believe God is a balance of good and evil, a creative and destructive force that underlies everything in the universe." Asked to elaborate on that idea of intertwined good and evil, Rice says, "You can't go all the way to one extreme or the other. You end up becoming what Jung called a one-sided person. You need to find a balance between the two ends."
Viewed in that philosophical light, Rice's work becomes less a black-heart and white-noise assault on the listener and more a chiaroscuro portrait of the man who writes the music. If you choose to focus on one element of his work, you lose one-half of his intent. And perhaps the element you choose says more about you than it does about him. The flame of the album's title is both the Promethean flame of enlightenment and creativity and the black flame of destruction. It is a foregone conclusion that the "Alpha" will terminate in "Omega"; Rice allows you to enjoy the space between the two points as the soundtrack for the Big Bang and the destruction that presages the last whimper. Receive the Flame rewards open minds and imaginations alike with subtleties and delicate shifts that become evident only after multiple listens. You must consider all possibilities first before deciding on the one you find most attractive.
Still, this is an election year, and Rice has been targeted in the past as an artist whose work could have a dangerous influence on young minds. All it takes is one of those "other outsiders" who enjoy Non to focus on the darker elements of the music and then take that short walk from loner to lone gunman; does the prospect of being tenuously linked to some violent tragedy by the evening news worry him?
"I believe music can have a myriad of influences on people, but you can't legislate sanity. How many people saw Taxi Driver, but only one person shoots the president? You can't approach your art with that one person in mind. Some people will appreciate it, and only a few will have that totally emotional response that makes them go out and kill. But if you turn that around, can art be ennobling and pull you up the evolutionary scale? If it's powerful enough to pull people down, can it be powerful enough to pull them up? England has wonderful (television) programming -- it's intelligent PBS-type documentaries. But it's still a nation of churlish thugs who eat garbage for breakfast."
All of this makes for interesting discussion, but what should really get your blood a-boilin' is the fact that for the first time ever, Boyd Rice will be performing in St. Louis. People from as far away as Switzerland have called the Firehouse to get directions for the show, so you'd better drag yourself down there without any of the usual complaints. Rice will be playing "a full spectrum of Non material," he says, and he'll be doing it guitar-free. "I used to have this guitar with a fan on it. The blades of the fan would strike the strings and make this noise, like a squadron of planes taking off. Now I use ... well, I don't say what I use, because I don't want other people imitating me." Unfortunately, such an occurrence is not bloody likely.
Boyd Rice appears with Chicago's Luftwaffe on Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Firehouse. Rice's new compilation album, The Way I Feel, collecting the best of his collaborations with various artists over the past 15 years, should be out any day now.