I watched this with some friends – we’d been told it was the sickest, goriest movie ever made.

It wasn’t very good. I don’t know what else to tell you. The tagline is “AUGUST UNDERGROUND’S MORDUM WILL VOMIT ALL OVER YOU AND LEAVE YOU FOR DEAD!” That sounds pretty hardcore. Does it have that effect every time? I’m not sure I’ll rewatch it much. They should have toned it down, so that it only acid-burps in your face and leaves you with a faint sense of despondency.

It’s a fake snuff film – shot in a deliberately amateurish style – about a trio of serial killers, who record their crimes. They have sex with each other, mutilate themselves, go to a crack den, kill someone, and then a fifth event occurs, and then a sixth, and then a seventh. If you like movies with events, you’re in luck! This one has so many of them!

August Underground’s Mordum doesn’t have a story, it has incidents. The scenes could be rearranged in almost any order. The dialog consists of shouting and profanity. The characters have names like “Crusty” and “Maggot”. The cinematography consists of flailing shakycam that made me literally nauseous – surely if there’s one positive trait serial killers possess, it’s calm, steady hands?

It’s artless, boring, and dismaying. The writing is so blandly and forgettably stupid that I fully expected a character to say “As an AI language model, I am programmed to follow ethical guidelines.”

Whiles, Cristie: [cutting herself deeply in the chest with a piece of glass] Do you fucking like it?

Vogel, Fred: Shit yeah I like it!

Whiles, Cristie: Why don’t you jerk off on it, fucker?

No, I don’t know what August Underground’s Mordum means. There’s nobody and nothing called “August Underground” in the movie, and “Mordum” isn’t a word – though, pronounced phonetically, it absolutely becomes a description.

The film has serious Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-To-Door Trying To Shock People energy – it’s trying hard to be the most outrageous thing you’ve ever seen, so much so that it backfires and becomes not shocking at all. The actors are often visibly uncomfortable with what they’re asked to do, which is funny. The climactic final scene involves the character Maggot raping a dead body in a bathtub. He gives it some fake, half-hearted humps, like a frat pledge trying not to look gay. At no point does his pelvis touch anything except air.

The runtime is padded out with pointless crap, like a scene of Maggot getting a septum piercing. There’s actually a term for this: “Shoot the rodeo”. Is your movie too short? Just scrounge around your camera’s SD card for some unrelated footage, and suddenly it’s not. The concluding shot is of a cat eating a mouse.

The thing about August Underground’s Mordum is that you can basically know everything about it just from a single detail. Do I give an in-depth discussion, or can I just mention that it has characters called “Maggot” and “Crusty”? Or that the director fronts a death metal band? Or that the production company is called Toetag Pictures, and their website has a .biz TLD, like all serious big-boy websites?

A toe tag, by the way, is a piece of cardboard that is fitted around a corpse’s toe, providing identifying information to the coroner. Most morgues haven’t used toe tags for a long time – now there’s an ankle bracelet. But it fits the company’s approach to invoke a cliche that’s twenty years out of date.

August Underground’s Mordum seeks to recreate the flat, naturalistic affect of Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, and the gooberish “OMG, is it real??” rubberneck-factor of Cannibal Holocaust or Guinea Pig 2. Those are old movies. And they didn’t seek to be mistaken as real, it happened by accident.

As Dave Kehr noted once, “It is a curious attribute of camp that it can only be found, not made.” You can’t really click your heels and wish your movie into cult status. It has to happen organically, and accidentally. This is exactly one of those try-hard “let me into the canon!” manufacted camp classics that Kehr writes about. There’s a reason The Room will be remembered forever, while the word Sharknado already has no meaning to anyone.

This film is the middle child in a trilogy of films. I briefly considered watching the first or the second, but then I decided to watch HR Pufnstuf instead. That’s a good example of August Underground’s Mordum‘s strike rate: it loses a battle against HR Pufnstuf.

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Let’s talk about a subject that’s near and dear to every Metallica fan: post-traumatic stress disorder.

The hippocampus is a region of the brain (embedded within the temporal lobe) involved in memory consolidation and contextualization. PTSD sufferers have reduced hippocampal volume, which means (neuroscientists conjecture) their brains are less able to instantiate past trauma as a memory, as opposed to an active, ongoing event.

Put more simply: where most people know that bad memories are in the past and cannot harm them, PTSD sufferers don’t. The mind endlessly relives horrors, spiraling around them like a record stuck in a groove. Again and again, the memory breaks free, pouring out of containment like corrosive acid. Fists clench. The breath hitches. The heart thunders in the chest. The blood seems to scream. They cannot move on and heal. According to their damaged temporal lobe, the traumatic event is happening right now.

Why do I mention this? For obvious reasons: it describes Metallica’s career.

All bands have a story – one partly based on facts, and partly based on public perception. But Metallica’s story stopped progressing in 2003. Yes, they kept on doing things. But for many of us, our subconscious image of the band is frozen eternally in 2003, like a PTSD victim’s memory of trauma.

Once, Metallica made sense. Their early career has a narrative arc so sharp and defined that feels almost written, like a Hollywood screenplay (soon it might become one). They exploded out the gate in 1981, four scrappy youngsters with something to prove. They went on a monumental hot streak, releasing four LPs now regarded as some of the finest ever made in heavy metal. They pioneered an exciting new style (Bay Area thrash metal), and broke it to the mainstream.

Tragedy struck in 1986, but they soldiered on (“back to the front!”), reaching still greater heights of mainstream success. The Black Album has sold an astonishing 22.7 million copies. To put that in perspective, if all of those albums were stacked in a pile, it would be a pile 22.7 million albums high.

Then the next arc of their story began: the collapse.

They cut their hair and lost the plot. They released discs of idiotic grunge rock, played said grunge rock with an orchestra, sued fans, went to rehab, almost tore their own band apart with infighting, recorded “Mama Said” and “I Disappear” and several other crimes against humanity, and generally alienated a lot of their old audience. They spent the entirety of 1996-2002 as a self-parody, stepping on rake after rake, becoming a bigger joke by the day.

They hit rock bottom with 2003’s St Anger, an album so profoundly and deeply hated that it’s actually kind of loved. People can step you through St Anger and point out all the terrible parts, moment by moment. There are fan projects on Youtube that “fix” St Anger with guitar solos and better production. I mean, come on. Nobody does that stuff for an album they don’t secretly admire, right?

St Anger was such an incredibly shitty CD that it hit Metallica fans like a hippocampus-shredding trauma event. No matter how many years (and new albums) pass, our collective image of Metallica remains “the band that just released St Anger, and now must redeem themselves.”

Read the Metal-Archives reviews of Death Magnetic or Beyond Magnetic or Hardwired…to Self-Destruct or Lulu. St Anger appears as an endless comparison. It’s become the reference point that all Metallica albums are judged against. In our hearts (if not our heads) Metallica is still a barely-functional clown-car disaster that sues Napster and steps on rakes.

The problem: all that stuff happened at least twenty years ago.

Metallica has existed for forty-two years. Imagine a timeline of their career: all of the classic albums are packed into the first 16.667% of that line. Cliff Burton died at the 11.905% mark. The Black Album came out at the 23.81% mark. Load/Reload came out at the 35.714% mark. St Anger came out at the 52.38% mark.

Doesn’t that hurt your brain? In what universe is Load an early Metallica album? How can St Anger, the definitive example of a shitty late Metallica album, be at the exact middle of their career? Surely it’s not possible that Robert Trujillo has been Metallica’s bassist for longer than Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted combined? It doesn’t make any sense, yet this is the world we live in.

Time is moving on, but the Metallica story isn’t. Nobody can let that 2003 image go. Metallica will forever be the band that made St Anger.

But moving on from trauma requires accepting that it isn’t your fault. If Metallica’s narrative isn’t progressing, that’s on them. They have to give us a reason to actually update it, and so far they haven’t. For twenty years, they’ve offered up ghosts and hints of former glory (and another terrible album in Lulu), but they still haven’t come back.

With that in mind, does 72 Seasons do the job, and finally end the St Anger trauma cycle?

Well, it’s easily the best Metallica album of the decade so far. But since it’s their only album of the decade, it’s also the worst. So maybe that’s a bad angle of analysis.

It has a shitty title, a bad cover, and music that falls well short of expectations a fan of the classic albums might hold. Like Death Magnetic and Hardwired…to Self Destruct, it avoids colossal miscalculations like nu metal or country music, yet it’s still not a return to thrash metal.

Its basic tonal characteristic is “Load, with some thrash riffs and fast songs”. And even if you want that, this is a flawed presentation of that idea. 72 Seasons is basically ruined by three problems.

Problem #1: The songs are far too long

Straight off the jump we get “72 Seasons”, an absolutely killer track. No, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s one of the best things they’ve recorded in decades. The band is simply on fire here. The riffs crush and slash. It’s energetic as hell, and there’s real drama in the dynamics and performance. Even James Hetfield’s vocals are awesome, and I’ll be damned if that’s a sentence I planned on writing in 2023.

…but after it finished at 7:39, my thought was “that song could have been 4 minutes long”.

This was a troubling premonition of things ahead. The whole album has an unedited feel, like a padded student essay. Riffs repeat more times than they need to. Bridges devolve into unfocused jam sessions that nobody seems to know how to end. At least “72 Seasons” is strong enough to survive overexposure. This can’t be said for most of the rest.

Tracks like “Screaming Suicide” and “If Darkness Had a Son” just meander around, getting steadily more lost in vague chuggy gloop. The riffs are unmemorable, and the band has seemingly forgotten how to write a chorus. “Sleepwalk My Life Away” has an interesting intro, full of coiled menace, like a snake about to strike. Then the song starts, and it’s the most complacent, self-satisfied drivel you’ve heard this side of Load. Just bland groovy mainstream rock that goes on for 7:30 and would have been overlong at any length. “You Must Burn!” sounds like “Sad but True”, stretched out on a rack. Seven more minutes of groove riffs.

Then we get “Fixxxer, part II”…or “Inamorata”, as I believe it’s called. Is that chorus worth eleven minutes of your life? Is any of it worth eleven minutes of your life?

Not all the songs are duds. “Too Far Gone?” is a vocal-driven punk rock song akin to Bad Religion, and “Room of Mirrors” is an uptempo thrasher. Both of these songs have solid hooks and strong performances from James, but even here, there’s unnecessary flab. The band is too big to need to edit, but they should have considered it.

Roger Ebert once described a boring movie (I don’t remember which one) as being like waiting for a bus in a part of town where you’re not sure there’s a bus line. That’s a great way to put the album. Sometimes inspired ideas come, other times not, but it’s always a chore waiting for them.

Problem #2: The production is awful

The album disagrees with my ears in a way that’s hard to articulate. It’s clean and polished and technically “good”, but there’s a cheap nastiness to it, too. Trust me: you will get sick of how the album sounds after seventy-seven minutes.

Hetfield’s guitar tone is overprocessed dogshit. Again, it’s hard to explain what’s wrong, but for guitar nerds out there…you know the sound you get when you plug your guitar into a Tubescreamer, set the gain to 0, dime out the tone and level, and plug it into a high-gain amp? Congrats, that’s the 72 Seasons guitar tone. Really thin and dull, with no depth or chunk or sustain to the sound. Has James blown out his hearing? Even the St Anger guitar tone was better than this.

Once again, Lars Ulrich is mixed far too loud, if we are kind enough to assume it’s even him playing (the drums on “Lux Aeterna” are either programmed or so robotically performed that they might as well be). I don’t hate Ulrich as much as some do, but he’s not the kind of musician you want to hang your entire sound around.

He stands out as a particularly insufferable presence on “Inamorata”. The bridge has a nifty talk-and-response interplay between the guitars and Trujillo’s bass (it reminds me of “Orion”‘s bridge), but I can hardly hear what’s happening, because Lars’s hi-hats are mixed so fucking loud.

Most of the blame belongs to Greg Fidelman, one of metal’s biggest hacks. He ruined Slayer’s World Painted Blood, he helped ruin Black Sabbath’s 13, and now he’s here to deep-six Metallica too. A Rick Rubin disciple to the core, his style is smooth, commercial metal with zero edge or balls. I am convinced he a covert K-pop operative on a mission to sabotage as many metal bands as he can, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t succeeding.

Problem #3: the band has no identity anymore.

St Anger was no misunderstood gem, but at least it was bold and decisive. It picked a direction and stuck to it. But 72 Seasons, like Hardwired before it, is very uncertain about what it is.

Thrash metal does not sound good when mixed with modern rock, and when the two styles are combined in one song it almost tears the song in two. The excessive length ruins the fast songs and further deadens the groovy rock tracks. The attempts at going back to their roots are undercut by the shiny modern production. Everything in this album is at war with everything else.

“Lux Aeterna” is a song I’ve avoided discussing at length, because it exhibits the album’s divided character the best. It finds the band in full Diamond Head parody mode. The riffs and energy and speed are beamed straight in from 1980, and it’s thrilling to hear.

…But the old-school style songwriting clashes horribly with Greg Fidelman’s production job. The mix needs to be rough and raw and drenched in reverb, like old-school NWOBMH. But all you can think about is how obnoxiously slick it sounds, and how fake and processed the drums are.

The lyrics are just word salad that sound like they were written by ChatGPT. Once, Metallica’s songs were about things. Even instrumental tracks like “Call of Ktulu” and “To Live is to Die” had little filaments of meaning trailing off them, inviting you into a world beyond the song. Now, it’s just James issuing portentous mumblecore at you. “Traumatic! Dogmatic! Volcanic! Psychotic!” Shut up.

So that’s 72 Seasons. It’s long, it’s a slog, and it’s only occasionally worth the effort.

Metallica is so associated with dramas, scandals and stupidity that they really need to regain some semblance of their former greatness. Makeweight efforts won’t cut it. If they want to retain their title as metal’s biggest band, they can’t merely just be okay.

It’s just a continuation of the two albums before it, and presents a picture of a band floating in limbo, unwilling to commit to a sound or a style. Death Magnetic and Hardwired…to Self-Destruct run for a combined two hours and thirty minutes, and have about eight or nine good songs between them, most of which are still flawed in some way. 72 Seasons adds perhaps three more to the pile. It’s probably the worst of the post-St Anger releases (aside from Lulu), and unlike that album, it lacks even the bravery to be truly and memorably bad. This is just another milquetoast effort, doing what it needs to do – barely.

As future decades roll by, Metallica’s discography will be forgotten in reverse, starting with their later releases, but with some of their earliest albums being the last to disappear from memory (and St Anger, of course.)

This will not make the cut. The band still hasn’t found a way outside its self-inflicted trauma loop. As noted psychologist J. Alan Hetfield astutely observed in his seminal 1997 text, “Fortune fame, mirror vain, gone insane / But the memory remains”.

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Eight hundred years. You sense their weight; feel them wrapped around each word like chainmail. I thought it would be easy and fun to read Georgia’s foremost national poem, but I was mistaken. Nobody can read The Knight in the Panther’s Skin at all.

Or you can read it, but from a great distance. It’s like staring through a telescope at a distant pulsar – you know the faint glow beating raggedly against the lens is not how the pulsar would look in reality, but that doesn’t bring you any closer to its light, and so it goes for old stories. The text sits in your hand, yet somehow isn’t there at all. It belongs somewhere (and to someone) else.

Jonathan Swift’s books from 300 years ago still hit hard, and so do Shakespeare’s plays. Maybe eight hundred years might be too far for a time capsule to travel. Empires have risen and fallen in that time, and so have literary movements. Everything is different – too different. The Knight in the Panther’s Skin is ultimately a book for interpretation and guesswork, not raw, sensual experience. That’s sad.

It tells the story of the knight Avt’handil, who is on a quest for the great knight Tariel, who is on a quest for the maid Nestan-Daredjan, who has (etc). Rustaveli’s tale unpacks itself like a sequence of matryoshka dolls, and there’s a cyclical element to the narratives within narratives.

Rustaveli’s eternal wayfarers encounter friends, enemies, visions. They fight battles, and discurse on philosophy. They hunt deer. Comparisons to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur are easy, but there’s little sense of fate or destiny or divine providence. Instead, Rustaveli seems more interested in painting the emotional world of the characters.

It can be unexpectedly modern, even a little existential. Everybody, man or woman, is essentially their own person, doing things because they want to. There’s little sense of dry ecclesiasticism – it’s a warm and emotional work. There’s even some passages that now read imply things very at odds with what Rustaveli might have imagined (but who knows?)

Tariel met him. They were both fit to be ranked as suns, or as the moon in heaven, cloudless, spreading her rays on the plain beneath. Compared with them the aloe-tree was of no worth; they were like the seven planets; to what else shall I liken them?

They kissed each other, they were not bashful at being strangers; they opened the rose, from their lips their white teeth shone transparent. They embraced each other’s neck, together they wept; their jacinth, which was worth rubies, they turned into amber.

Quatrains 275 and 276

The plot is complicated, and the nested perspectives make it hard to keep track of who’s saying and doing what. But there are simple repetitive motifs that reoccur at every level. It’s less a story than an algorithm, like Conway’s Game of Life: it’s hard to understand by staring at the replicating cells, instead it’s better to learn the rules and let the details sort themselves out. Everyone’s questing, everyone’s unfulfilled, the roads wind on forever, etc.

I can only read things in English, and must use a translation. But The Knight in the Panther’s Skin was originally poetry: 1,600 quatrains (or four-line stanzas) in stylized Georgian verse. My 1912 English translation by Marjory Wardrop drops the poetic meter, turning it into a prose narrative. There’s a newer translation that preserves the rhymes, but I’m sure the text was further corrupted to make that happen. Even if I could read the original Georgian, I’d still be reading it with modern eyes and modern sensibilities. There’s a gap from here to the past that can’t really be crossed. And the book’s fey, dreamlike narrative may have been so idiosyncratic that only Rustaveli truly understood what he was saying.

The Knight in the Panther’s Skin is now regarded as a national epic, but Rustaveli’s vision extends far beyond Georgia’s borders. He has his characters exploring the entirety of the known world. We visit fictional versions Cathay, and India. It’s even theorized that the merchant city of Gulansharo that Avt’handil visits in quatrain 1309 might be Venice.

I don’t know if Rustaveli ever went to these places in real life. Certainly, his descriptions don’t seem particularly vivid. India (Tariel’s homeland) is described as a land with seven kingdoms, with one king holding sway over six. There’s no language barrier: Avt’handil and Tariel freely converse. It’s likely that Rustaveli treated India and China the way H. Rider Haggard treated inner Africa – an exotic locale for his heroes to have their adventures.

A sense of oneiric wonder prevails. The characters are like wind-sculpted smoke, endlessly changing to suit the story – in the opening quatrains, the king describes himself as aged, and at death’s door.

“My day is done; old age, most grievous of all ills, weighs on me; if not to-day, then to-morrow I die–this is the way of the world. What light is that on which darkness attends? Let us instate as sovereign my daughter, of whom the sun is not worthy.”

Quatrain 36

But soon after, he’s healthy enough to undertake a monumental hunting trip with Avt’handil.

The king commanded the twelve slaves: “Come, accompany us, bring us the swift bows, prepare the arrows, compare what is struck and keep count of the shots.” Game began to come in from every corner of the plain.

Herds of game, innumerable, flocked in: stags, goats, wild-asses, high-leaping chamois. Lord and vassal pursued them; what sight could be fairer! Behold the bow, the arrow, and the untiring arm!

The dust from their horses’ tracks cut off the sun’s rays. They slew, their arrows sped, blood flowed through the field; as the shafts were shot away the slaves brought more of them. The beasts wounded by them could not take another step.

They ran through that field; they drove the herd before them. They slew and exterminated, they made wroth the God of the heavens, the fields were dyed crimson with the blood they shed from the beasts. Those who watched Avt’handil said: “He is like an aloe-tree planted, in Eden.”

Quatrains 74-77

Was the king lying about his infirmity? Or did Rustaveli merely want to include a hunting scene and didn’t feel like revising what he’d written before? Answering that requires nothing less than a time machine back to medieval Georgia and a syringe of sodium pentothal.

Everything about the text exists on the same of shifting quicksand: you never know how you’re supposed to take anything. Even the title is unclear. Is it really a “panther”? Some translations render it as “tiger”. Is it meant as a meant as a pastiche? Don’t know. Who was Rustaveli? What did he achieve in life, and what did he experience? Was the book an attempt to win the favor of “King Tamar” (as quatrain 4 indicates), or is it more personal?

But maybe this ambiguity is fitting, because Georgia is an ambiguious country. It’s neither east nor west. It’s at the crossroads of people groups and faiths. Empires have warred over it. At the time of King Tamar (who was a queen!), it was a nascent empire in its own right.

As conquerors and Khans and and immigrants rolled across the country, each left their own stamp. Like the Balkans across the Black Sea, Georgia ended with up a gestalt, mongrelized identity, and an aesthetic outlook to match. If Christianity is red and Islam is green, Georgia’s religious makeup could be described as yellow (perhaps with a pinkish tinge), and that comes through in the book.

Rustaveli was probably a Christian. The book contains plenty of nods in that direction, and some phrasings seem drawn directly from the Bible (“gall of bitterness” in quatrain 99, for instance). But there’s also some references to Mohammed, Mecca, the Koran. The philosophical outlook is very Sufi – some of the odder asides could be dropped in from the tales of Nasruddin and you wouldn’t notice. Rustaveli has a very…cosmopolitan view on faith, and this apparently got copies of the book burned by ecclesiastical powers in the 18th century.

But how does it read?

Viewed as a historical text, Knight is fascinating. Viewed as literature, your ability to enjoy it depends on your willingness to let go of modernness. Some medieval literature is bloodless. But Panther has the opposite quality: it’s entirely blood. It’s a raging river of emotion and feeling that quickly drowns the senses. Nobody’s just handsome. They glow with such aureate splendour as to dim the sun. Nobody’s merely upset. They rend their faces and decant bitter wormwood tears.

He lay down on his bed, he weeps, it is difficult for him to wipe away the tears, he shivered and swayed, like an aspen in the wind; when he fell into slumber he dreamed his beloved was near, he starts, he cries out loud, his suffering increases twentyfold.

Quatrain 139

Rustaveli writes with a bludgeon, not a scalpel. This was the style of the time, I guess. But it makes you appreciate modernism, and its softer, lighter touches. After a few hundred quatrains of that, it has a deadening (or deafening) effect. When everything is turned up to 11, you lose track of what’s actually important. It’s like having a gong banged beside your head constantly as you read.

The book is rewarding, but it’s hard: I can’t stress that enough. Vast amounts of meaning have vanished from The Knight in the Panther’s Skin‘s core and cannot be recovered. You feel the loss, which resounds right through the text. It’s like wood that’s been subtly eaten from inside by termites – it still holds together, but it’s less weighty than it should be. Thousands of holes seem to be chewed in the book’s meaning.

Reading about turns us all into knights errant, seeking answers. It’s a story for a world that doesn’t exist anymore, but which still matters, because it lead directly to the world we have now.

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