There’s no denying the stigma that mental health carries with it. As someone who’s been fighting an uphill battle with depression for two decades, I’m still dismissed as a pariah by some because of my afflictions. The gap between empathy and experience is so wide, it might as well be a wasteland that’s barren and uninhabited. “I’m sorry you feel that way” and “Life is what you make of it” are the platitudes from the ignorant and self-deluded. Mistaking illness for weakness, these antagonistic misanthropes attempt to make themselves feel superior in any way they can. For those who live day to day with the burden of poor mental health, it sometimes becomes impossible to relate the experience to someone who lacks understanding. There exists a strange camaraderie among the afflicted, one which requires little explanation. It’s here where genuine empathy exists due to shared experiences.
The closest description I can offer is “living life in a distorted reality.” A perspective from someone well-adjusted differs greatly from my own. Still, this is where myself and so many others exist on a day-to-day basis. Naturally, this life of isolation on the outer fringe has led me to gravitate towards art that some would label as transgressive or controversial. Diamanda Galas, black metal, the writing of de Sade and Peter Sotos, films from Jörg Buttgereit and Richard Kern, and the art of Goya, Bosch and Otto Muehl have provided an escape. (Although my attention has been focused on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as of late.)
Which brings me Stalaggh. In this day and age, very few musical endeavors can truly shock or provoke an audience. It seems almost every boundary has been crossed, rule broken, and frontier explored. Purveyors of creative endeavors that exist only to be “anti PC” are themselves fabricators of vapid and disingenuous art. While the basement dwelling edge lord with an extensive NSBM tape collection might feel that they’re defying social morays, they only confirm their own ineptitude and laughable attempts at attention grabbing. Provocation doesn’t exist in their world—only the pointless whining for undeserved recognition.
Stalaggh (later renamed Gulaggh) represent a form of transgression that’s as old as time—abysmal suffering. The noise collective whose identities remain shrouded in complete secrecy manage to encapsulate an aspect of humanity that some choose to ignore. Even their name conjures imagery of one of the most horrific events in human history. Named for the prisoner of war camps operated by Nazi Germany (Stalag) and later the rehabilitation and labor camps existing in the former Soviet Union (Gulag), the unimaginable suffering of millions trapped behind barbed wire fences immediately comes to mind. The added GH to both names, an abbreviation for “Global Holocaust” appears to be hinting at a consistent state of degeneration that permeates the entire human race.
Based on their names alone, one might assume the absolute worst about the groups content and intention contained therein. There’s a method to their madness, and Stalaggh’s trilogy of Projekt Nihil (2003), Projekt Terror (2004) and Projekt Misanthropia (2007) provide a window into a world that few have known. Utilizing ambient noise integrated with the blood curdling screams of psychiatric patients, something emerges that not only provokes a response within the listener, but takes us into the asylums and hospitals where so many lost souls are cast aside like worthless rubble. While documentaries such as Children of Darkness (1983) have chronicled the anguish and trauma of the mentally ill, Stalaggh allows one to gaze into the abyss that these people call their lives. As we descend into this realm, I’m reminded of the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: “…if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you…”
From the opening moments of Projekt Misanthropia, a cacophony of howls and the clanging of metal confronts the listener with the unpleasantness and anguish of the afflicted. To the casual observer, this might simply come across as nothing more than noise that grates on the senses. The agonizing cries cut through the mix and grow more chaotic as the album progresses. There isn’t a moment where the experience relents in its harshness. Much like mental illness itself, the entire album is unrelenting and without mercy.
The question one might ask is whether or not this is art, or simply exploitation of mental illness to illicit shock. In many ways, Projekt Misanthropia defies typical definitions and criticisms. The unknown identities of the artists involved and the method in which they compose their art is certainly a fascinating aspect that draws upon curiosity. There’s something to be said about a group operating in the shadows removed from plain sight. As far as the exploitation of psychiatric patients is concerned, I would argue that Projekt Misanthropia is eerily similar to Titicut Follies (1967) with its graphic depictions of agony and how it brings suffering to the light of day.
In this day and age, mental illness is something that can be helped with therapy and medication. For years, those who were afflicted with any form of psychosis were generally confined to asylums and hospitals. Unlike the places that exist today that focus their attention on rehabilitation and healing, these were quite literally warehouses of lost souls. Locked away from society, they more or less became a burden in the eyes of the state. Titicut Follies, despite having a title derived from a talent show, is the farthest thing from performance art imaginable.
Filmed in a hospital located in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the documentary graphically depicts the abuse that many of the patients were subjected to. As was the case in many hospitals at the time, patients were regularly force fed and humiliated by a staff who were all too eager to exert control over those whose faculties were compromised. This was the age were the lobotomy was considered a humane treatment, and patients lying naked in their own excrement was all too common. Although banned for several years, Titicut Follies is a chilling reminder of the inhumanity and wretched treatment in which the disabled and mentally ill were once subjected to. Even Haxan (1922) touched upon this cruelty, in which the treatment of mental disorders that afflict people isn’t too far removed from the persecution inflicted by the hysteria of the witch hunts.
While Projekt Misanthropia might be dismissed by some, it’s hardly taking advantage of the afflicted. If anything, this is an album that offers us a glimpse into the agony that millions suffer on a regular basis. The nonlinear structure of the album comes to accurately represent the disjointed reality that’s impossible to articulate. Stalaggh provides a platform for the forgotten to share a collective voice.
While the form and content of Projekt Terror and Projekt Nihil offers some striking similarities with Projekt Misanthropia, the group also illustrated their ability to reach out to new mediums. Projekt Terror – A Visualization is a haunting collage of images that’s possibly the most effective in its composition since Crass utilized the same art form in conjunction with Christ: The Album (1982). While the style and content of the two bands couldn’t be more different than one another, Stalaggh and Crass both remove the veil in their displays of imagery that depict the worst of humanity. Projekt Terror – A Visualization rapidly displays footage from the holocaust and other tragedies in a rapid succession that illustrates the bleak nature of Stalaggh’s intent all too well.
Because history repeats itself, and tragedy, cruelty, and suffering no know boundaries—Gulaggh, the new incarnation of the collective unleashed Vorkuta in 2009. The first of an as of yet unfinished trilogy, Vorkuta is no less haunting or traumatizing than its predecessors. Named for the infamous Soviet gulag, Vorkuta is an exercise in terror that shows the collective branching out into new directions. Combining a recording that inmates at the camp were subjected to, along with screams of women and small children creates a horror-inducing audio experiment that manages to place the listener behind the confines of barbed wire and into a world of hopelessness and suffering. Utilizing a variety of instruments, including a saxophone and a snare drum, Gulaggh’s efforts to create disorientation and turmoil are chilling in their effectiveness.
Again, the question repeats itself–is this shameless exploitation of suffering, or transgressive art that deserves praise? It’s been remarked before that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. While some might find the aspect of this particular recording named after a prison camp reprehensible—it does focus attention on the gulag system itself. In its own way, it brings awareness to the terrors inflicted during the reign of Josef Stalin. Just as Stalaggh illustrated the world of mental anguish, Gulaggh depicts something that should not be forgotten.
While the collected works of Stalaggh and Gulaggh will certainly not adhere to everyone’s taste, there’s a necessity for art such as this. We should never be afraid to be challenged by the creations offered to us. What might be vile and course on the surface might open a window into something we might not have known before. These recordings give a voice to so many that have been wrongly silenced. We would do be doing a great disservice by ignoring or dismissing them.