There’s being dumb and then there’s playing dumb. The first is a state, a condition of simple unknowing. The second is a tactic, a way of hiding in public, a means of survival even. Knowing the difference between these degrees of dumbness is crucial for Iiron, the sequel to COH’s (a.k.a. Ivan Pavlov) 2000 long-player Iron, because the seven tracks of guitar and electronics collected here take heavy metal as a starting point, a genre that – for right or wrong – has taken a fair share of hits for its lack of depth. Even the man credited with naming the form, Lester Bangs, expressed doubts about its seriousness: “But, I think I was much more willing then to settle for something that was just like. . .Well, like Heavy Metal, a lot of those bands like Deep Purple, I mean, what the hell were they about? Nothing really, but they were fun.”
From track titles like “Fist of Glory ” and “All Lights Are Fire” to the shadowy, monolithic cover art of Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley, all the trappings of the blackest-clad genre are present. It’s there in the way Pavlov builds each piece from simple, sturdy riffs consisting of minor-hued chords crusty with distortion. It seeps from the themes that get picked out, with flanger set to stun, in vaguely Middle Eastern modes. It marches in the relentless rhythms and aggressive intent.
But if Iiron simply stayed metal, it would get stale quickly. Pavlov, however, seems to be playing a game against himself, usurping his adolescent guitar urges with an equally aggressive layer of electronics. Rigid Techno-like rhythms, gurgling synth sequences and cheap-sounding organs fight for attention in the mix, sometimes even overtaking the guitar work entirely. The combination of the two is over the top at times and ridiculous at others. The two elements, taken separately, would be vacuous, but together they emerge as something more, a kind of fascinating dialogue between youthful, stupid ideas that you can’t help but fall for.
Playing dumb isn’t all that far from irony, which is a sort of default mode for anything postmodern. And some of Pavlov’s past work, especially that documented on Raster-Noton, can certainly be called that, examining genre and instrumentation from a suitable distance. But Iiron feels different, more personal somehow, lacking the coolness distance conveys. Instead, as on tracks like “Satsugaii” or “Slowup [quadrate für Jah],” where the raw bonehead riffing and pulsing grid of electronics engage in a kind of musical one-upsmanship, the mood is playfully subversive, like the pleasure of a teen doing something he shouldn’t (which is, after all, the secret of all heavy metal) or, seeing as Pavlov grew up in a Soviet Russia in which heavy metal was seemingly not tolerated, the thrill and anxiety of a citizen working in private to erect a personal wall against an oppressive state. That particular time and place might be gone, but as Pavlov shows here, playing dumb will never outlive its usefulness.