DYLAN ETTINGER: Lion of Judah/Baptism Single

Dylan Ettinger is a beast. Since I began writing this review on his recent Lion of Judah/Baptism Single, he has already come out with a new release on Moon Glyph. I really wanted to try and get this review out, so that it would be up-to-date with what Ettinger is doing, but the Moog-madman keeps moving at a lightning pace. This just goes to show his work ethic. Before I can even finish writing something about Lion of Judah/Baptism, he comes out with something new.

In the last several years, it seems like Dylan Ettinger has never sat still. In 2008 in Warsaw, Indiana, Ettinger started up El Tule (http://eltule.org/), an independent label that specializes in releasing cassette tapes from various artists. Since then he’s written and recorded more than half a dozen releases including One Rude Dude, Smokin’, Cutters, and his highly acclaimed New Age Outlaws. He has traveled and gigged all over the states, most notably playing at SXSW this past March. Ettinger also collaborates with other artists, and this can be seen on Lion of Judah/Baptism as Drekka was brought onboard to add Melodica to the title track. In between all of this artistic output he also found time to study at Indiana University and hold a job. Currently residing in Bloomington, Indiana, the 23 year-old Dylan Ettinger continues to move forward with his music.

To those new to Ettinger’s synth-scape style, the first listen can be overwhelming. But rest assured, Ettinger is not some psychedelic wannabe who plays endless stoner jams on a synth. His songs are well thought-out, highly developed, and complex pieces of art. The sheer size and intricacy of his oeuvre shows that Dylan Ettinger puts more effort than most into his work, and he continually strives to create meaningful and interesting compositions.

Furthermore, Ettinger is a savant when it comes to electronic music. He occasionally makes guest appearances on music blogs, writing about former electronic trends and recommending some of the most important songs. The man’s knowledge is by no means limited to Kraftwerk.

On Dylan Ettinger’s Lion of Judah/Baptism 7” release from Not Not Fun Records the only intelligible lyrics that occur are “Lion of Judah” and “A baptism in blood is better than none”. But the minimal role of the lyrics does not lessen the Single’s impact. Lion of Judah/Baptism consists of the two tracks: “Lion of Judah” (Video above) and “Baptism”, both of which are more concise and more openly melodic than a lot of Ettinger’s previous work. The two songs combined run no longer than 9 minutes and have clear, analyzable ABABA and ABCCCB pop forms.

Ettinger has created two songs that fit into the forms and time frames of pop music, but simultaneously pervert this genre by the use of excessive synthesizers, excessive reverb, and minimal lyrics. Although this Single is not quite as ambitious or impressive as his New Age Outlaws, it still provokes important questions and reveals a lot about the Moog-madman and his art.

One of the first things we notice with Lion of Judah/Baptism is that the songs are placed within a religious context. The Lion of Judah has a long history, most notably connected to the Jewish tradition, but also has associations with Christianity and Rastafarianism. The name of the B-Side “Baptism” clearly references the Christian faith. The Official “Lion of Judah” Video, by Nathan Vollmar and William Winchester Claytor, plays with pictures from Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s famous baroque pieces The Taking of Christ and Salome receives the head of Saint John the Baptist.

(Compare 2:22-23 on the Youtube video with http://www.nationalgallery.ie/en/Collection/Selected%20Highlights/selectedhighlights/Caravaggio.aspx

and 3:06 with http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-salome-receives-the-head-of-saint-john-the-baptist)

But Ettinger’s representations of these religious symbols are portrayed in dark, slow, lumbering beats, with droning bass lines, spacey synths and ambiguous vocal work. The combination of the lumbering songs and the religious symbolism send the listener into a meditative state, where religion’s intents and purposes are hazily mixed with absurdity and the electronic music developed in the second half of the 20th Century.

“Lion of Judah” is particularly interesting, because Ettinger takes the listener to a world that is very different from the future Metropolis of New Age Outlaws. The world of “Lion of Judah” is like some religious cave, where the Lion howls his name at the listener, asking for respect and appreciation. The sensation is regal, yet somehow uncomfortable.

The words from the second song, “A baptism in blood is better than none” combined with wild theremin-esque sounds also create an eerie sensation. It is almost as if Ettinger himself is dunking the listener’s head into a river of blood, just as John the Baptist dunked Jesus into the Jordan.

Ettinger’s work is all about the musical worlds he creates and how the listener survives inside those worlds. The alternate realities are fascinating experiences that make us question why our actual reality exists in its current shape and form. If Jesus were baptized in blood, would Christians today then also be baptized in blood? If the Lion of Judah were to be used by a contemporary religious group (i.e. the Rastafarians), does that make the same symbol less meaningful? These and other important questions trudge through the mind as Ettinger’s beats trudge towards the end of each song.

Ettinger’s music naturally leads each listener to different questions and to different imagined worlds, but the religious interpretation is something that cannot be overlooked. Ettinger’s religious statement in this 7” Single is something that strays away from the general protestant beliefs of his former hometown, Warsaw, Indiana. The listeners of Lion of Judah/Baptism will find a Dylan Ettinger who has left Northern Indiana behind. He left a place where his ideas were not appreciated and where his art was misunderstood. Just like Dylan Ettinger himself, the power of his Lion of Judah/Baptism Single can easily be overlooked, if one doesn’t stop and try to understand it.

Check out Dylan Ettinger’s Bandcamp here: http://dylanettinger.bandcamp.com/

Latest news and updates here: http://www.twitter.com/dylanettinger

Get your hands on a copy of Ettinger’s latest release “Pattern Recursion” on Moon Glyph before they sell out. Scroll down a little ways and look under “Cassette”: http://www.moonglyph.com/

May 27, 2011

Andrew Morris


STEVE HENN: Unacknowledged Legislations

Unacknowledged Legislations by: Steve Henn

On the bottom right hand corner of page VII in Steve Henn’s recently published book Unacknowledged Legislations is the phrase “May God have Mercy on us all.” The last time I’ve heard anybody say “May God have Mercy on us all” was when I was about to blow chunks all over the place at the Kosciusko County fair in 5th Grade. I’d just gotten off of one of those spinning strawberry things and I was looking at the sky trying to hold the puke down, when some wild lady sat down next to me and started mumbling the phrase in question. In a lot of ways the book that Steve Henn has recently released is quite reminiscent of that experience at the fair. You see, reading the book is like stepping inside of a giant plastic piece of fruit and sitting down as some carnie claiming to be “the wicked wit to come out of Warsaw, Indiana since Ambrose Bierce” smiles at you and closes the little knee-high door. Once inside, each one of Henn’s short and biting poems keeps spinning you faster and faster until you start feeling that Chili-cheese dog from the 4-H Beaver Dam Stand reaching its way up to your esophagus. By the time you finish the book, you’re stepping out of that spinning strawberry and the only way to prevent yourself from ralphing is to sit down on a bench and look up at the sky above you. And then some wild lady sits down next to you mumbling “May God have Mercy on us all” and you think to yourself, “Indeed” even though you’ll slowly start to lose your faith in God and even though you never say words like “Indeed”.

Steve Henn’s first full-length book is the culmination of a decade long period of intense artistic productivity for the northern Indiana poet. From his co-founding of the notable small press magazine “Fight these Bastards” to his work with the Midwest Poetry All-Stars, his live readings, his band The Invisible Robots, and his numerous chapbooks, the high school English teacher is needless to say a heavyweight in the Warsaw artistic community. He is a friend of the laudable small-press poets Don Winter and Oren Wagner and I may also add that Steve Henn’s presence has been of great personal importance to myself and my own work.

Henn’s newest release is a piece that is very significant to the northern Indiana identity. Therefore I’d like to shortly look at three aspects of Unacknowledged Legislations: the use of radicalization, the emotional sincerity of selected pieces and the setting of Warsaw, Indiana.

The use of radicalization in Unacknowledged Legislations is something that functions, on the surface, to bring humor and a comedic element to his texts. We notice Henn’s use of radicalization right away with the first poem of the book: “Come Live on My Commune!”. Henn portrays a radical, sixties-esque commune in a cornfield in Kosciusko County. The idea in itself is something that seems absolutely absurd. How exactly could a communistic society be formed in the middle of a conservative leaning Midwestern County? How could the sex-fearing and God-fearing inhabitants of Warsaw “develop a breakthrough form of sexual intercourse” (P. 17)? The other wild absurdities that Henn describes in the poem further the radicalness of his imaginary commune.

But this example of radicalization should not be seen as merely humorous banter. On a deeper level, we notice that often times, Henn’s most extreme and absurd poems are linked with political topics. For example: “Democrat Sighting Reported in Kosciusko County”, “When Obama Was Inaugurated”, “God of Thunder Joins Eco-Terrorists”, and “Homosexual Mercenaries Take over Baghdad” among others. These frequent associations between radicalization and politics parallel the current political polarization in the US, which can be widely seen through the establishment of the Tea Party and the success of personalities Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck. Henn’s fusing of the political with the radical can definitely be interpreted as an expression of political discontent.

A possible effect of contemporary political polarization can be seen in a desire for the moderate, which is well executed in Henn’s poem “Confessions of a Flaming Liberal”. Here, Henn breaks down stereotypes of what a liberal is. Contrary to popular belief, Henn creates a liberal character who is not vegetarian, who “wouldn’t rule out voting Republican”, and who believes “in equal rights for homosexuals”, but still likes “to make fun of gay people” (P. 24). It is exactly this moderate liberal character that is so intriguing. Often in discussions about politics in the Midwest, the conversation turns into wild yelling and repeating of radical political ideas and/or logical fallacies. In contrast to this wild radicalized political world, Henn’s description of the “flaming liberal” is, in and of itself, rather mundane. This juxtaposition generates an absurdity. Normally something radical stands out from the mundane. But in an area that is so overrun by fanatics, Henn implies that it is, absurdly enough, radical to be moderate. In all Henn’s use of radicalization is a brilliantly humorous way to approach very sensitive topics with lightness, while at the same time digging to the depths of contemporary political issues and discontent.

A second wonderfully executed aspect of Henn’s book is the emotional sincerity and closeness that grows as the book progresses. Although most of Henn’s work is characterized by his biting wit and humor, there is a sentimental side of the author that shines through in some of his pieces. This sentimental side can also be seen in his 2010 chapbook release The Book of Nate, which contains descriptions of the various aspects of a good friendship, and leaves the reader with a strong feeling of camaraderie and warmth. In Unacknowledged Legislations similar warmth comes from poems like “Daydream”, “Myrtle Beach”, “On the Day Before My Eldest Child’s First Communion”, “A Note to Dr. David Haines”, and “When I Die”.

The musician Daniel Johnston, who Henn quotes in his book, is a master of achieving closeness and warmth. One reason why Johnston’s work is so powerful is because Johnston honestly, bluntly, and almost embarrassingly reveals his deepest inner workings. In a similar manner, Henn achieves this warmth by breaking down the barriers of embarrassment and self-restraint. Henn gets to his innermost and rawest human emotion in part by using the real names of his friends, but also by sincerely and gently handling the incredibly personal subjects of his “Eldest Child”, as well as his father (in “A Note to Dr. David Haines”). Instead of letting these personal subjects become points of embarrassment, Henn boldly paints himself and those closest to him into his art. Through this process he powerfully brings the reader into the realm of his world, of his reality, of his innermost existence.

Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the role of Warsaw and Kosciusko County in Henn’s latest book. Henn’s work contains conflicting views of his native area. On the one hand it is written in the Acknowledgments section that “he [Henn] is a big fan of the place where he grew up, and still resides”. But in Kaveh Akbar’s Foreword, Warsaw is described as “a station marked by indifference (or open hostility)” directed towards artists. This is the world in which Unacknowledged Legislations lives. It is a preternatural world where frustratingly radical conservatives burn books about sexual education, but also where young artists produce “tendril promising nourishment / for all the unbelieving ears” (P. 92). The town’s dullness allows the writer’s mind to wonder freely, dabbling in and out of pop culture, beers amongst friends and “Non-Lethal Uses for Your Standard Issue Suicide Machine”. Steve Henn’s poetry is simultaneously a commentary on the city in which he resides as well as a product of that same city.

Perhaps the most revealing poem in relation to Warsaw, Indiana is Henn’s piece “(Sigh)”. “(Sigh)” is the most ambitious poem that Henn undertakes in the book and stands as, in my personal opinion, the best example of Henn’s brilliance and a cultural artifact of utmost importance to Kosciusko County. At the end of the poem Henn yearns for a time when he “can go back to Warsaw, Indiana, without the slightest hint of regret” (P. 83). This passage and poem captures the feeling of Northern Indiana to a T: a place where one must always regretfully return to and where one can never truly get away from. It is a place that disgusts us, but only because it has captured us and refuses to let us out of its grasp. The only way to find contentment in the madness of the Lake City, is to find those who have also, for whatever reason, become trapped in the bastardly clutches of that God-fearing and God-forsaken county. Thus bleeds Henn’s pen in the poem “(Sigh)” . . . for he has lost a friend, Zeb, who it appears once helped him cope with the madness of living in Warsaw, Indiana.

Steve Henn’s first complete book of poetry Unacknowledged Legislations is a hilarious and profound journey into the mind and life of its author. It is a behemoth of Warsaw art, because of both its ambition and its execution. For everyone with any association to Kosciusko County, Unacknowledged Legislations stands alone as the most important book of poetry to come out of the region this year. Steve Henn’s full-length debut can be found online at nyqbooks.org, amazon.com as well as in the Barnes & Noble online store. More Information about Steve Henn can be found online at http://www.bookthatpoet.com/poets/hennstep.html

May 10, 2011

Andrew Morris