Planet of Sound: The Mae Shi, “Pwnd”

Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.

Here’s a post for those of you who like the weird ones: from the album HLLLYH (pronounced either “Hallelujah” or “Hell yeah”) by experimental Los Angeles punk band The Mae Shi, a cacophonous chant-along about the Second Coming and the Rapture, titled with a juvenile gamer joke which seems to suggest that God views life on Earth as something similar to a violent video game.

Well God gave me very specific instructions, he said,
“Go down there and start some eruptions and floods and mass destruction.”

There was a two-week period a couple years ago when HLLLYH‘s manic, raucous, kitchen-sink-with-synths music was all I wanted to listen to, and it was primarily because the sound of the album managed to balance in that sweet spot where strong melodies and addictive riffs grounded blistering instrument noise and volatile vocals without sapping any of their nervous, inspired energy.

But the secondary reason I kept playing the album, and maybe the reason I didn’t get bored with it sooner, was the enigma of its lyrics, which seemed almost straightforwardly biblical – albeit with a pretty heavy emphasis on “Revelations” (song titles include “Lamb and the Lion,” “Kingdom Come,” and “Divine Harvest”). And yet, there was always enough of a twist on the themes that I didn’t feel preached to, and, in fact, wondered if the Mae Shi might be aiming for subversion: could any lyricist have their God-character demand “Burn ’em up / Salt the earth / Do it fast / Make it hurt,” and really expect me to come away converted?

The Mae Shi generally didn’t address their own religious beliefs in interviews, and the lineup that came together for HLLLYH broke up in 2009, but I’ve found a few references that suggest the members of the group at the time held wildly varying beliefs, from devout Christianity to lifelong atheism, which might help explain the tension I felt in their songs, the push/pull of music and lyrics that never let me comfortably categorize them as either fully sincere or satirical.

What I do know is that, artistically, they built towards moments of catharsis and exorcism that I suspect could be felt either spiritually or secularly. When “Pwnd” ends with repeated delirious shouts of “Get ’em out of those bodies,” I’m not thinking of the Rapture. I’m remembering the liberation from bodily self-consciousness I’ve felt at the best concerts I ever attended – and wishing I’d had the chance to see The Mae Shi live.

Joshua Starr believes in the power of music, fiction, and mint chocolate chip ice cream.


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