Manson Family Values

Teach your children well and accept that Heaven is Hell

"Everything I say is a lie" -- that's some semantic conundrum. If everything I say is a lie, and I say everything I say is a lie, then that's the truth, so everything I say can't be a lie, so it's not the truth. Reality can be tricky like that, and folks such as Sartre, Nietzsche, and Anton LaVey long ago wrestled these human notions to the philosophical ground. Or at least they tried to. Now it's Marilyn Manson's turn.

For those from, say, Oklahoma, it should be noted that Marilyn Manson is a five-piece, South Florida-based rock and roll band, formed four years ago by a guy named Brian, now known as Mr. Manson (he dropped the first name Marilyn to avoid confusion with the band name), and soon to be known around the nation. "We are a symptom of your Christian America, the biggest Satan of all" announces the one-page "bio" that accompanies the group's debut CD, Portrait of an American Family (Nothing/Interscope). "I wrote that flyer," Mr. Manson, a one-time journalist, says, "as an instant quote-puller, for those who can't get an interview."

The flyer says plenty ("It's too late to take it all back. This is your world in which we grow and we will grow to hate you.") but the CD says more. It begins with a horror-movie style narrative that's almost goofy except for an ominous water-drop punctuation blending into a mob-rage loop-de-loop that would make fine background for Shirley Jackson's famous story The Lottery. It ends with an incessantly ringing telephone, which represents the true evil of modern American society.

In between are an odd dozen amazing tunes weaving together something of a story that one could interpret as representing the decline of the American family. There are more than enough hooks to make such literary interpretations unnecessary, the most monstrous coming in the first single, "Get Your Gunn," with its nifty "goddamn/ooop/goddamn" chorus. (A video of the tune should begin airing on MTV's Headbanger's Ball this week. Mr. Manson says there was a "big hassle" over the word goddamn. The group's radio-edit version was also troublesome. "They wanted the word God bleeped," Manson explains, "which is assbackward because damn is the cussword.")

Locals will find many of the selections familiar, though not in such refined form. "Cake and Sodomy" is even more irresistibly delicious here; "Misery Machine" still rushes headlong down Highway 666; "Dope Hat" remains the ultimate metaphor representing the connection between rock star and ringmaster ("My big-top tricks will always make you happy/But we all know the hat is wearing me"). And there's much more of this potent celebration of anguish. Truly a portrait of American families.

As clear and high-octane as the songs are, the actual CD packaging seems just as essential to the band's message agenda. Its construction proves prima facie that much thought and inspiration went into the project. The cover, for example, depicts a papier-mƒche four-piece family (their hair is real) constructed by Manson during downtime at Criteria, where the band conducted initial recording sessions. It's spooky, kids.

Before any of this is mistaken for child's play, consider that Mr. Manson has come to understand the fundamental rule of fiction writing: Be true to yourself. And he also knows that his elaborate packaging works. "It's either that we're upfront about it, or that we have the music to back it up," he says. "It's a pretty strong musical backbone, it can stand on its own. Everything else is to help people enjoy the music, but also, anything we do, it has to make me happy. If it makes other people happy, I can have a career out of it. It's all only as fake or real as you want it to be."

They always call these things "a culmination," but in this case there is no more apt description. Early demos -- 1990's big black bus in particular -- revealed that the band, then known as Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids, possessed some real musical ability and plenty of interesting ideas, most involving sound effects and tape loops. (That old cassette also ends with the sound of a telephone ringing.) But the overall effect wasn't nearly as powerful as the outfit's grinding, inventive, engrossing live sound. Even performances that didn't feature naked women nailed to a cross, a child in a cage, or bloody animal body parts were impressive and memorable.

The concept -- and concept is critical to Marilyn Manson -- was still a bit vague. Much was made about the androgynous aspect of the members' monikers -- the others also use a femme first name combined with a serial-killer surname -- and the fact that the band members had a thing for kitschy Seventies lunch boxes.

With Portrait, however, the various elements that make MM so entertaining fell into place. It is truly the "culmination" of four years' work. It is a remarkable piece, with an involving story line, what they used to call a "concept album." The band's elaborate stage shows already have been taken on the road during a brief tour as openers for Nine Inch Nails; at the end of the summer a more extensive tour (55 dates, including some in Canada) begins. Late last month the band won the top honor at the Slammies, Florida's most prestigious hard-rock awards, by copping Band of the Year. For the second year in a row. And thanks to this release, the obsession of critics and fans with Marilyn's lunch boxes and other gimmickry should come to an end.

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