Eat or Be Eaten

The Conformists make music that travels way down the brain stem

Jul 12, 2000 at 4:00 am
The Conformists are an "experimental punk band" (according to their handwritten press kit) from across the river. Only you know whether you like experimental punk. If you're not sure how you feel about the Conformists, read the following, which has been conveniently divided into two distinct sections, the first "hard science" and the second "humanism." Then cut this feature into small pieces and glue the two sections back together in a random fashion on a separate piece of paper (a glue stick works best). If your personal edit of the Conformist Feature amuses you and your friends, then you probably like experimental punk (congratulations!). Mail your personal edit to Paul Friswold, in care of The Riverfront Times.

Mechanics of the Conformist Strange Attractor

"We're looking for a balance between chaos and structure." -- Uttered by a Conformist during a late-night van ride to the middle of nowhere

"Chaos" is a widely misused term. Although it is often construed as meaning total randomness and a lack of order, in scientific circles "chaos" describes patterns that are unstable and aperiodic. These patterns are often so vast and complex as to defy comprehension, unless one is willing to examine the smallest fragments in order to grasp the larger whole. Chaos' combination of contradictory effects (instability and nonperiodic rhythms) is reconciled by formulas known as "strange attractors." Theorists use strange attractors to map out explanations of complex natural phenomena, such as how weather cells form and dissipate. Strange-attractor formulas can also be used to explain the mechanics of the Conformists' music.

Consider the Lorenz attractor. The Lorenz attractor is a streamlined version of the Navier-Stokes equation, which was derived to describe the behavior of incompressible fluids.

X = theta x + theta y
Y = xz + rx y
Z = xy bz

The variables x, y and z represent the state of an atmosphere. The variables s, r and b correspond to the parameters described by the changing physical properties of the model's "air." If you plug in values for x, y and z, the solution mapped out by the equation corresponds to fluid convection that rotates clockwise for a while, then counterclockwise for a different length of time, then swings back to clockwise for yet another cycle of time, and so on. The system will continue in this arrhythmic pattern until its external source of energy (heat) runs out. The end result of this system depends entirely on the initial conditions defined in x, y and z; the smallest change in initial conditions will produce wildly divergent solutions in a short period of time.

The Lorenz attractor's dependence on initial conditions is what gave rise to the theory that a butterfly's wings flapping in Bolivia could generate a storm in the Midwest. Any excess energy expended in the early going, no matter how small the expenditure, will have tremendous impact in the later stages of the cycle. What is perhaps most fascinating about the Lorenz attractor (for the purposes of our discussion) is that when solutions to the equations are mapped out, they describe a dimension between the second and the third.

Let that last thought sink in for a moment. Now, how does all that science apply to the Conformists? Consider their song "Hatch-it," from their eponymous five-song cassette. If the members of the band and their respective instruments are inserted as the beginning variables, you get the following:

Jim Winkeler, bassist: Bass = theta (bass) + theta (drum)
Tom O'Neill, drums: Drum = (bass)(guitar) + r(bass) drums
Chris Dee, guitar: Guitar = (bass)(drum) b(guitar)
The external source of energy for the Conformist strange attractor is vocalist Mike Benker's guttural black shout.

"Hatch-it" begins with Chris' down-tuned guitar picking out an elliptical riff that wobbles around as if one leg were shorter than the other. Mike barks out his instructions -- "Hatch-it! Feed it! Watch it grow!" -- adding the energy necessary to expand the system. Tom's drum and Jim's bass lock into a clipped beat that bolsters the now chopped and faster chords of the guitar. The system is synchronized, rotating around Mike's chant of "I'm not a tool." At 26 on the tape counter, the guitar repeats the initial riff louder and faster, and the system plays out again, thicker and more powerful from the energy of Mike roaring, "See what this life has done to me/See what hate and destruction bring."

The tape counter hits 42 and the system stops for the barest fraction of a second; then the guitar unravels the initial riff, bending the notes and the pitch into a new pattern. The drums adjust, firing sharp even beats, cymbals punching out windows as the bass stretches across the scales, creating space. The guitar increases the pace, gaining speed as the system begins to rotate opposite its initial impetus. The cymbals gallop along the crest of the riff, drawing the bass and the guitar together in tempo. Now the bass carries the cell; everything spins faster as Mike unloads more energy into the system, screaming it all forward with cries of "Cough it up! Cough it up!" His words become sound only, grunts that cause eruptions of cymbal to equalize the pressure. The system is barely contained, rotating wildly. Too much energy has been consumed, and without Mike's input, the system grinds to a halt.

In the Conformist strange attractor, each instrument is dependent on the others for continuing the system. The individual exists only as the others feed its existence. By interacting so, a dimension between the second and the third is created. Science may be able to explain and chart the mechanics of this interaction, but it cannot explain what exactly this interstitial dimension is. To do that, you need to drop reason and embrace emotion.

Engaging Snake-Brain,
Living in the Moracula

"Three hundred sixty degrees of horizon. You can't get that in the city." -- The last words of a Conformist before leaping from a 30-foot heap of gravel

Wrapped around the base of the human spinal cord is a lump of brain stem similar in appearance and structure to the brain of a snake. This wad of gray matter is 500 million years old, and it controls the most basic survival functions. Snake-brain is alert, vital and unreasoning. The snake-brain knows eat or be eaten. Be quick or be dead. Kill or be killed. The sounds Chris Dee's guitar make resonate in snake-brain, awakening long-dormant instincts.

Chris' guitar is the predominant shaping force for the Conformists. It is not the lead instrument in the traditional rock & roll sense; he does not use it to play conventional melody lines that carry the tune or deliver the fluid leads of a brilliant soloist. Chris' guitar is a noisemaker. His riffs are strange dark clusters of protean sound that writhe and bristle with malicious glee. His guitar is wobbly, steady, driving, drifting, nauseating, spine-stiffening; it is a biomechanical tool he uses to agitate snake-brain in the other Conformists. Snake-brain makes Tom hit his drums at times when a human brain would not think to strike. His rhythms are twisting and off-kilter, punctuated by the Clank. Jim's snake-brain listens to the guitar and plays behind and beyond it, dogging Chris' steps but never falling in line. Jim's bass becomes the echo to and the prophecy of what Chris' guitar plays. Mike's snake-brain hears the noise of the other Conformists and awakens. Snake-brain controls Mike entirely, shutting off his mammal brain and transforming Mike into a hissing, shouting, roaring conduit of raw nerve endings that stretch back across untold eons.

It is that moment when all four of the Conformists have given themselves over to snake-brain that the dimension between the second and third is forged. Medieval Christian theologian Peter Lombard postulated that there was a tiny sliver of a moment in time between Lucifer's creation and fall. Lombard called this moment the "moracula." During the moracula, Lucifer recognized his own limited nature as opposed to God's nature and freely chose to disobey his master, thereby absolving God of creating evil (He made Lucifer good; Lucifer just chose not to be) and guaranteeing Lucifer the starring role he desired ("renegade angel"). Lombard's moracula is that dimension between the second and the third. That moment in "Hatch-it" when the tape counter hits 42 and there is the tiniest sliver of a pause before Chris Dee's guitar summons snake-brain, all of the Conformists recognize their limited nature: They can ease off, let Chris lay down four bars of solo and become just another punk band, or they can freely choose to disobey. Conformity or Conformist? Two lifetimes are balanced on the tremulous curve of that moment, and one of them shall exist only in dreams of what might have been.

When their moracula ends, the Conformists begin. The sound of "Hatch-it" rotating on its axis, spinning out of control and into something Other is the sound of free will beating out obedience, and it feels as good and wicked as your first fight, only this time you win. It is no accident that the answer to life, according to Douglas Adams, is "42." The question, it seems, is, when will you start living your own?