Words by Adam Hudson
When philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote “On the Concept of History”/“Theses on the Philosophy of History” (which inspired Daxma’s latest album) in Paris in 1940, he had already fled Nazi Germany.
As the Nazis were defeating the French Army and taking over Western Europe, Benjamin planned to go to the United States. He made it to the French-Spanish border in Catalonia, but since the Franco government in Spain had ordered police to return those seeking visas to France, Benjamin killed himself by overdosing on morphine tablets, fearing if he returned to France, he’d be in Nazi hands.
Not only does the story of Walter Benjamin’s final days fit, stylistically, within doom metal, it inspired Daxma’s latest release, last summer’s Ruins Upon Ruins — an album that’s taken on new meaning in the era of COVID-19.
Based in Oakland, Daxma (pronounced dahk-muh) consists of Isaac R. and Forrest H. on guitars, Jessica T. on violin and guitar, Kelly D. on bass, and Thomas I. on drums. Of the five members, three of them contribute vocals: Isaac, Jessica, and Kelly. The band’s name refers to a Zoroastrian ritual structure used for disposing the dead.
Daxma formed in 2014 in Santa Cruz as a collaboration between Isaac (formerly of Leucosis) and former guitarist Stephen (also formerly of Miasma and Rest When You’re Dead) to blend drone metal and post-rock. When Isaac moved to Oakland in 2015, he added his longtime friends Thomas (formerly of Slow Potion) and Kelly. After that, Jessica joined.
In 2016, they released their first EP, which the band’s Facebook page describes as “a work centered around the themes of frustration, longing, and utopianism.” Later that year, Stephen moved to Australia and Forrest replaced him on guitar. The next year, in 2017, Daxma released their debut LP The Head Which Becomes the Skull, which the band describes as “a meditation on the journey of the soul from birth through death, a work loosely inspired by G.F.W. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit.”
Ruins Upon Ruins contains just two songs: “Minima Moralia,” which is 14 and a half minutes long, and “Landslide,” which is nearly 11 minutes. This album, Daxma explained to The Bay Bridged, is “a response to the Hegelian outlook of our first album ‘The Head Which Becomes the Skull’.” The album’s title, they say, is “Taken from a line from an essay called ‘On the Concept of History’ by Benjamin, who writes about an angel of history looking backwards towards the past. His idea was that where we see progress, there is an angel of history who sees only ‘ruins upon ruins’ piling up at his feet.”
To appreciate the aesthetics of Daxma’s music, it helps to understand what constitutes post-metal and doom metal, especially for those unfamiliar with heavy metal’s massive taxonomy. Just as heavy metal is a heavier subgenre of rock, post-metal is like post-rock, but heavier. Post-rock bands of the early 1990s, such as Slint and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, used rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes.
In that way, post-metal’s predecessors would include many bands from the 1980s to early 1990s who played heavy metal, mixed it with punk, and took it in an avant-garde direction. Think of grunge band Melvins, post-hardcore band Fugazi, industrial metal band Godflesh, and alternative metal band Helmet.
As for doom metal, it’s the branch of heavy metal that emphasizes slower to mid-tempo riffs with themes of pessimism, despair, dread, and — as its name states — impending doom.
Stylistically, one can hear the blend of doom metal and post-metal in Daxma’s music, especially in Ruins Upon Ruins. The guitars and bass play massive, heavy riffs creating a wall of dark and bone-crunching sound. However, their music isn’t all heavy all the time. The sense of impending doom created by the massive riffs are balanced by moments of calm, which shows their post-rock influences. There is an even balance between heavy and mellow — one moment, you feel like the world is going to end because of the crushing riffs but then band begins playing softer with lighter drumming, quieter picking on the guitar, and the violin in the background, providing a sense of calm to balance the doom.
Daxma told The Bay Bridged that they have “obvious doom metal and post-rock influences,” however, they also “have influences ranging from punk, black metal, psych, pop, classical, etc.” The violin cuts through the loud, dense guitar and bass amps very well. Doing so is not easy in metal band. To get that sound, it took trial and error, according to the band. “This process has been a journey, and it has taken some trial and error to figure out what kinds of amps, cabinets, and effects pedals work best for the kind of violin tone we are aiming for in this project.”
The song “Landslide” is a “very loose interpretation” of “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac.” “It was inspired by a dream Isaac had one night before a friend’s funeral,” says Daxma. It’s not really a cover, but more of a tribute. “None of us really think of this song as ‘cover’ so much as a ‘re-imagining’ or ‘re-purposing’ of this well-known and loved song that has been covered more traditionally by a number of artists,” they said. The intense, heavy highs and mellow lows are maintained on “Landslide,” as well.
Perhaps more important than Daxma’s music style, and particularly relevant for these times, is their message. Listening to their music just for the sake of sonic pleasure is to under-appreciate what the band has to offer. Daxma is very explicit in their leftist politics, and their music communicates it. “Daxma is steadfast in our anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, and anti-nationalist views, and these views inspire the art we are trying to create. We stand in solidarity with those who fight against exploitation and oppression,” Daxma told The Bay Bridged.
It’s not just their music that reflects leftist politics, but the band’s internal organization, which emphasizes non-hierarchy and bottom-up collectivism. “Our music takes the form that feels most natural to us. We don’t really try to place many rules or restrictions on what comes out or whose voice sings the words in a song. We treat each other as equals and try to put the music first.”
“The world is and historically has been a pretty fucked up and cruel place. Dread and doom is far from what we are going for though. We try as best as we can to remain hopeful and optimistic about the future and endeavor to inspire our listeners to remain hopeful as well. ”
It is also apt that the band chose to name their latest album after an essay by Benjamin. While European philosophers like Georg Hegel posited a narrative of history where humanity always marches toward progress, Benjamin was more pessimistic. Benjamin rejected the idea that the past was a continuation of progress. Moreover, he points out that history is often written by rulers and victors, who depict their version as “universal,” rather than the oppressed.
Daxma’s views about how to move forward as a society have taken on new relevance lately. The pandemic is not just enacting a massive human and public health toll, the mandated quarantines have impacted the global economy and, now, nearly 30 million people are unemployed. Before COVID-19 hit, the state of affairs was still bleak — the rise of global fascism, the rise of overt white supremacy within the United States, rampant police killings of unarmed Black people, endless wars, a climate crisis, kids and families locked in cages at the U.S./Mexico border, and massive economic instability for millions of Americans.
However, one would be mistaken to view Daxma’s music as nothing but dread and despair. They explain: “The world is and historically has been a pretty fucked up and cruel place. Dread and doom is far from what we are going for though. We try as best as we can to remain hopeful and optimistic about the future and endeavor to inspire our listeners to remain hopeful as well. ”
With COVID-19 killing thousands around the world and mandatory quarantines halting the global economy, it is normal to feel a sense of hopelessness and despair. However, music is always there for us, and good art often helps us cope with dark times. If you need some heavy music to get you through — and a revolutionary message to think about, too — Daxma is worth listening to.
Adam Hudson is a freelance journalist and writer who typically covers Guantanamo, U.S. militarism, policing, and housing/gentrification. His work has appeared in numerous outlets, such as Truthout, The Nation, AlterNet, and teleSUR English. He is the co-host of the Real Sankara Hours podcast. He’s also a drummer/percussionist who plays djembe as a soloist and used to play drums in the now-disbanded rock band Sunata.