The aesthetic vision of M. Lamar’s Funeral Doom Spiritual was undeniable.
In a costume (by Erik Bergrin) somewhere between a conquistador and the judge at a witch trial, backed by a quintet of string players in black hoods and robes, his face curtained by heavy-metal hair, the air clouded by a fog machine, the multidisciplinary performing artist strode ceremoniously to the piano, and—in a countertenor register—wailed a cycle of original laments on texts (written with Tucker Culbertson) about black genocide, suicide and suffering, while original videos evocative of silent-era horror cinema played on the wall overhead.
As a bold new mode of expression, the piece (art directed by Sabin Michael Calvert) seemed not only valid but absolutely necessary, an all-too-timely wail of post-apocalyptic rage and despair. But as music, it lacked something.
When I say that M. Lamar’s work evidently owes a great deal to Diamanda Galas and Klaus Nomi, I trust you’ll understand that it’s a compliment; when I say that he lacks their vocal discipline, I trust you’ll understand that it’s no insult—this isn’t an “opera” performance, per se. But at least at the NYC premiere of this work, presented at Williamsburg’s National Sawdust by the PROTOTYPE Festival, there seemed to be a certain musical discipline missing across the board.
I’m a fan of co-composer Hunter Hunt-Hendrix‘s band Liturgy, which puts an exhilaratingly cerebral spin on the Norwegian “black metal” subgenre, and his electronic contributions to the piece (controlled by Chris McIntyre, who doubled on trombone(!)) were for the most part polished and effective. But the composed sections of Hunt-Hendrix’s string arrangements seemed thin and uninteresting, while evidently improvised passages lacked coherency.
The work might have been more successful in a different venue. I’d love to see it in a church, where the natural reverb would gloss over the lack of fine detail and contribute to the quasi-acoustic doom-metal aesthetic, rather than in the dry, intimate National Sawdust auditorium, and where even heavier amplification and electronic manipulation could have heightened the emotional force of the work.
But presented as it was, open to close aural scrutiny, Funeral Doom Strategy revealed that it could only make up for a lack of technique through emphasis: one tic of Lamar’s piano writing, for instance, was to strike a note on the piano, and then strike it again through different octaves; Lamar’s performance, physically and vocally, offered diva gestures, but not (e.g.) the intonation to match.
As Lamar sang his last song, I could sense that the cycle had reached its conclusion, not because it had progressed to a logical musical endpoint, but because he was reprising a tune from earlier in the show. It was an ending without an arrival, completion without closure, and all too emblematic of the show’s reliance on emphasis and gesture rather than nuance and form.
Photo: Jill Steinberg