Creating Negative Awe Through Sound: A Review of Mirar’s New EP ‘Mare’

negative awe mare ep mirar

EP cover art: Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599) by Carvaggio

On 10th June, French metal band Mirar released a six-track EP titled Mare. This EP, and the band in general, falls into the metal genre ‘thall’, which combines elements of progressive metal, death metal, and mathcore. Thall is an offshoot of djent and originated with Vildhjarta, who started using the term in 2011; the genre includes Vildhjarta’s music and bands influenced by them (Fractalize is one such band I’ve been enjoying recently). Many fans of thall say Meshuggah influenced the genre (as their music certainly shares similarities with Vildhjarta’s). The Metalverse states:

Thall is characterized by clean guitar melodies that are contrasted by similar but distorted riffs with bending notes, harmonics, and down-tuned guitar riffs. The style is often written to create an uncomfortable atmosphere. Described as a more extreme version of djent, Thall uses unconventional timings, polyrhythms, and a highly technical guitar style.

Many thall bands also use ambience and electronic elements in their music. It would be accurate to say that Mare is a clear example of the thall sound (reviewers have also described its genre as “neoclassical thall”, since it blends in classical/baroque music, with one reviewer calling it “Neo-Classical Avant-Garde Deathcore Thall”). All the elements certainly combine to create an ‘uncomfortable atmosphere’. But this effect, especially heightened in Mare, I think can also be characterised as inducing a feeling of negative awe

In psychology, negative awe is a variant of awe, an emotion – similar to the notion of ‘the sublime’ in philosophy – in which a person experiences paradoxical feelings: both admiration and fear. (In many ways, God can be said as the kind of being that induces awe, or the sublime, since this being’s immense power and presence elicits both reverence and overwhelm. The Bible often includes such descriptions of God; as stated in Psalm 119:120: “My flesh trembles in fear of you; I stand in awe of your laws.”) There are many sources of awe, with some examples including large mountains, powerful waterfalls, extreme weather events, and the expanse of the starry night sky. Nature is a common source of awe, but music also has the capacity to evoke this curious emotion.

Psychologists, however, have started to distinguish between positive awe and negative awe. The latter is associated with greater feelings of fear, anxiety, dread, nervousness, and powerlessness. This type activates the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Both types of awe may induce some of the same physical reactions (e.g. goosebumps), but their emotional character is distinct. Causes of negative awe could include a wrathful god, tornadoes, and terrorist attacks. Negative awe arises from the level of uncertainty, threat, and fear we experience. If we acutely feel in danger in reaction to a natural object or phenomenon, then we are more likely to experience the negative variant of awe.

If music can inspire awe, in the positive sense, then perhaps it can also inspire its negative variant. I think Mirar’s new EP, at various points, achieves this. The ‘uncomfortable atmosphere’, or negative awe, created by Mirar here is achieved through the EP’s sonic hellscapes. Screeching guitars, cacophonous and seismic riffs, and unsettling tempo changes all contribute to that dark atmosphere.

The clearest example of the EP’s negative awe-inducing sound, or its zenith, is the final track, ‘Cauchemar’ (which, aptly, means ‘nightmare’ in French). The first four minutes of the track sound truly hellish: the audio equivalent of Dante’s Inferno. Here the screeching guitars seem to mimic the cries and screams of tortured souls. Metal music YouTuber Nik Nocturnal released his reaction to the track, with the title ‘Heaviest Metal Song I’ve Ever Heard…’ Many metal songs are extremely heavy, but it takes skill to make that heaviness capable of inducing negative awe; that requires creating a certain level of disturbance, such as through chaotic and dissonant sounds.

As well as hellish, the soundscapes on ‘Cauchemar’ could be described as apocalyptic and cosmic (think of a black hole ripping apart matter). In ‘Cauchemar’, the piano section that follows those four minutes of being dragged to hell is like a reprieve to the audio assault and overwhelm that came before it. But this juxtaposition doesn’t feel misplaced. The piano section creates a sense of surveying the wreckage, following the destruction. Yet despite being calm, the piano part still maintains an unsettling feeling; it reminds me of the more melodic aspects of Meshuggah’s music (such as the track ‘Past Tense’ from their latest album Immutable), where the note choices create a calm but eerie, sinister, and almost sorrowful feeling.

We can also get a sense of the emotion behind Mare before listening, owing to the EP’s cover artwork: Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599) by Caravaggio. The band used another of Carvaggio’s pieces for their 2023 single ‘Madeleine’: his painting Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy (1606). The violence and terror depicted in Judith Beheading Holofernes is reflected in what we hear on ‘Mare’, in particular in the final track. This contrasts with ‘Madeleine’, where the religious ecstasy of Mary Magdalene – the depiction of her experiencing the divine presence of God and hearing celestial choirs – clashes with the track’s horrifying intro. 

Even if we can tie ‘Mare’, or parts of it, to negative awe, this does not mean that this example of negative awe isn’t appealing or attractive. It would be wrong to say you can’t be enthralled and amazed by, or be able to enjoy, negative awe-inducing music. A tornado or a deeply disturbing horror film can engage us and hold our attention while instilling fear and uneasiness. Ambivalent experiences like this are not that alien or rare. There may have been times when you felt like crying and laughing at the same time. Nostalgia is a mix of the positive and negative: reflecting on the past can make you feel happy and sad simultaneously. It’s a bittersweet feeling.

I think a useful paradoxical emotion to compare with negative awe is cringe. This is because cringe, whether directed towards ourselves or someone else, is a kind of embarrassment, which is painful and uncomfortable. Of course, the most painful cringe is related to embarrassing things one has said and done, but we can feel second-hand embarrassment and discomfort when witnessing the awkward slip-ups of others. The painful nature of cringe is clear because of the facial expression associated with the emotion: wincing. The scrunched-up, grimacing face we make when we cringe is similar to the face we might make when we’re in physical pain or experiencing disgust.

Similarly, when listening to Mare, I was wincing at times, but not because it was an unpleasant listening experience. Instead, I found that the maximalist and harsh sounds on the EP evoke fear, shock, and discomfort in a way that is aesthetically novel and fascinating. It is awe-inspiring music, but of the kind produced in hell, not heaven. I think it is rare for music to be able to induce negative awe (when we think of awe-inspiring music, we typically associate this with positive emotions, and it is much easier to think of pieces of music that elicit positive awe). For this reason, Mare is an important EP. It also shows just how far extreme metal has evolved.

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