Not everyone was happy with the direction George Bush was taking the United States in 2003 when he set out on his course of conquest and empire building. Today it has become much more fashionable to be against the conflict in Iraq, just as a generation ago the opposition to the Viet Nam war became stylish as the conflict drew to a close.
But for those lonely voices back in the early stages of the War On Terror it must have felt like they were yelling into a gale for all that anybody seemed to be listening. The noise of patriotism and righteous indignation could be heard emitting from every television and radio; blaring from every headline; and oozing out of every opportunistic mouth.
To those trying to tell the world that perhaps there might be a contrasting opinion to the one that was being touted by the administration it must have been obvious that they needed to make a lot of noise in an original way if they wanted to make their voices heard over the din. Pandemoniumfromamerica was an attempt made by Viggo Mortensen and his companion in sonic disruption, Buckethead, to do just that.
Joined by their friends Henry Mortensen, (Viggo's son) Dominic Monahan, Billy Boyd, and Elijah Wood, they attempted to not just voice their opposition to the war but to describe what it felt like to be caught up in the maelstrom of America at the time. At first blush the tracks may not appear to have anything to do with the subject at hand, but this is not a typical CD of protest music.
For instance what does a distorted version of "Red Rive Valley" have to do with anything at all concerning the war or America? One could make some deep comments about it being symbolic about the loss of naiveté and innocence in America as it is such a sentimental pieces of silliness. But perhaps they are commenting more on the dangers of commercial sentiment as opposed to real emotion and how it can be used to manipulate reactions from people.
What else would you call appeals to the flag, patriotism, family values, the American Way of Life, and God's on our side? They are all manufactured by forces outside of you with the express purpose of triggering a reaction. It's a Pavlov and the dogs type of thing; see how many hoops we can push them through by invoking cheap sentimental imagery.
Real emotion is something you create naturally, not as a response to some man made manipulative imagery. It's no coincidence that Pandemoniumfromamerica is dedicated to Noam Chomsky the media critic and linguist. It was Chomsky in his book Manufacturing Consent who outlined how the American public had been duped by Papa Bush's administration and the media into going along with the first Gulf War through sentimental manipulations and outright lies.
The title track of the CD uses a poem by William Blake, the 19th century British Romantic poet and opium eater, To be honest I'm that big a fan of most Romantic poetry, finding it overblown and lacking in subtlety, but in this instance the poem Viggo selects help to create the mood of what they see happening in America. The mood of the piece suggests the babble of confusion that arose at the time.
Its effect is increased by the fact it falls on the heels of Viggo's response to the war, the poem "Back To Babylon". It can be taken both literally as being the return of American forces to the Middle East or as commentary on the descent into barbarism that accompanies a declaration of war.
Don't come listening to Pandemoniumfromamericaexpecting to find it full of pop music or even a collection of Mortensen's poetry. Musically speaking it's not what you'd call incredibly refined either, with Buckethead and Henry being the only legitimate threats as musicians on the recording. But despite this the other contributors have a sensitivity to the moods and emotions of pieces so their contributions fill the space with sound that's appropriate for creating the atmosphere needed for the words being presented.
There is an all-pervasive feeling of anxiety that percolates throughout the recording that reflects the state of mind of America in the days following Sept. 11 2001. Like the homeowner who was told that their gated community was invulnerable to the chaos of the society around them, America found that you couldn't lock the world out. Living lives of conspicuous consumption and self-absorption is no guarantee of immunity from the world's realities anymore.
Violated and afraid, and suffering from mass post-traumatic stress syndrome, the American people were easy prey to the manipulations of those who had their own agendas. More then willing to take advantage of everyone's grief and whip it into a froth of patriotic fervour and hatred to achieve their own ends, the leaders they elected to guide them through moments of crises with compassion and courage betrayed their confidence.
Listening to Pandemoniumfromamerica as an entity instead of as a collection of songs, one hears the anxiety, the betrayal, and the confusion. When an artist shows society its reflection in the mirror of his or her work the picture is not always going to be to everyone's liking. Viggo Mortensen and Buckethead have created a mirror that doesn't pander to anyone's self interest or ego; the sounds of a society in turmoil and confusion are never pleasant.
(Originally posted June 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.