Jean-Paul Marat was a French political theorist, physician, and radical journalist who gained prominence during the French Revolution. His writing advocated for basic human rights for France’s poorest citizens while also calling for the execution of the Revolution’s prisoners. A debilitating skin condition forced him to spend a fair amount of time in a medicinal bath. Unfortunately for Marat, he was murdered in his tub on July 13, 1793 by his political enemy Charlotte Corday. Corday didn’t even try to flea. She stayed with the body until authorities arrived and was executed on the seventeenth. The assassination was depicted in Jaques-Louis David’s painting La Mort de Marat. It’s a bold move to adorn your album with that scene. It’s even bolder to include a seventy page booklet dissecting the cult-like tendencies of a fictional religion.
Despite what the presentation might suggest, Have A Nice Life was never meant to be a thing. The multi-instrumentalist duo of Connecticut’s Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga didn’t have any major plans for their little hobby band, much less Deathconsciousness. The 2008 debut was released on the band’s own Enemies List Home Recordings after five years of writing and recording with a budget of less than a thousand dollars. It feels weird to even call it a “debut album” since barely anyone heard it. The duo never even bothered to burn it to more than 100 CD-Rs. Of course, Barrett and Macuga did what they could to send the album out to the press – it’s just what you do. Few publications approached the record with receptive ears, save for the universal love it received from those that actually covered it.
These outlets that cared were mostly small and probably now defunct blogs. In 2009, The Flenser re-issued the album and blurbs from these unrecognizable websites are still used on album’s webpage. There’s something endearing about that and I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. Name-brand outlets eventually caught on. Tastemakers like Noisy and The Needle Drop have thrown their support behind the band in recent years and their 2014 sophomore record, The Unnatural World, was reviewed by Pitchfork. The write-up was generally positive with a somewhat indifferent “7.4” slapped at the top of the page. For a lot of people, this was a big deal. Not necessarily because of the score or the review itself. The very idea of a website with Pitchfork’s clout even acknowledging post-punk’s best kept secret felt like a tectonic shift. The term “cult album” doesn’t even seem to do Deathconsciousness justice.
Do a quick google search and you’ll find a Wikipedia entry with only one paragraph. There’s just no neat history or concise narrative compiled through years of critical praise and there probably never will be. Have A Nice Life’s fanbase grew through word-of-mouth. “Word-of-mouth”, in this case, took place on Reddit /mu/ boards where obsessives dissected every square-inch of the album and posted the artwork with an apostle-like intensity. Part of the album’s near mythic lure comes from how mysterious this all feels. At this point, it’s more akin to an urban legend than a collection of music. You’ll probably have better luck finding a re-issue buried deep in the Connecticut wilderness than at your local record shop. Head to the bathroom, turn out the lights, and say “arrowheads” three times into the mirror. Dan Barrett will appear and give you a thorough explanation on the inherent flaws of man’s relationship with God.
But, what’s the big deal? Is anything here really that mysterious? Like at all? Deathconsciousness is only the result of two guys making music for an audience of pretty much just themselves. Go talk to Barrett and Macuga. I’m sure they’ll answer all of your questions and more. A simple answer is: it’s one of the most dense and adventurous guitar albums of the past ten years. These tracks were meticulously crafted through layers upon layers of thick guitar, bass, and hazy, barely-there vocals. Compositions are consistently disrupted in unexpected ways making the track list feel like it’s at least twenty-six songs deep instead of thirteen. Elements including the danceable darkwave on the second half of “Hunter” or the post rock explosion on the grandiose closer “Earthmover” manage to remain a thrill no matter how many times you’ve heard them.
So much of what’s unique about Deathconsciousness was happenstance or a mistake like inadvertently capturing conversations happening in the other room on “There Is No Food”. The extended outro of “Earthmover” features a literal bass drop achieved by an in-the-moment act of Macuga throwing his bass to the ground. Deathconsciousness is an ambitious work with production that’s constantly at odds with the vision. All of the track’s on the album are really just demos with a damaged recording quality that’s only slightly better than black metal’s early days. The band meant to present their creation in a much more attractive package, but the masters were lost late in the recording process. Masters that had been cobbled together and loved over the course of five years, mind you. In an interview with /mu/tant, Barrett jokingly described explaining the situation to his bandmate as “like telling someone their mother died”.
The album’s sound and the artistic tragedy both add to a deep sense of dread and anxiety that post-punk should’ve been reaching for ever since Ian Curtis intoned “This is the way/ step inside”. This bleakness on display often resembles a vacuum in which no light escapes. Apocalyptic visions of stars fading out in the night sky and collapsing roofs that “kill everyone there” are described in grim detail on the aptly titled bass driven “Bloodhail”. “I just don’t accept this anymore” should serve as a relatable scribble for a sad teen’s textbook that will age gracefully into a sad adulthood. When Macuga mumbles “Please, please, please, release me” on “The Big Gloom” he sounds believably defeated as he drowns in the Sunn O))) plays My Bloody Valentine instrumentation. I once read a weird bit of fan analysis that was very confident in the idea that “The Big Gloom” is told from the perspectives of a gold fish suffocating on the bathroom floor and an exhausted polar bear stuck on a melting ice block. I don’t exactly read the track that way, but I have no reason to believe it isn’t true. Yeah, you don’t get much bleaker than that. Yet, Have A Nice Life managed to pull off being a dark and affecting listen without being a total bummer.
There’s a dry, witty, and ironic sense of humor underlying the record. Titles like “A Quick One Before the Eternal Worm Devours Connecticut” and “Waiting For Black Metal Records In the Mail” have fun at the expense of their own misery. “Holy Fucking Shit: 40,000” features a stock synth bloop we’ve all heard a thousand times that eventually turns into an integral part of the song’s structure. On the surface, “40,000” is a pitch black, searching slowcore confessional until we’re hit with the lyrics “Send me back in time and I’ll bring us back in line/ Just tell me whose mother I have to kill”. This is a song about The Terminator. Through it all, Deathconsciousness is statement that was, without a doubt, designed to tackle some demons while refusing to take itself too seriously.
The band and the album’s lineage never quite took off in post-punk. It’s too alien. The post-punk projects I can think of that bare the closest resemblances are Women’s Public Strain and Cindy Lee’s Act of Tenderness. Neither of which carry the instrumental heft Deathconsciousness took on. Also, I wouldn’t go around assuming either of those bands have even heard of Have A Nice Life. After ten years of floating around the internet, it appears the duo found their audience in the artier sections of metal. Have A Nice Life’s brand of home recording aesthetic and personal collapse has since been picked up by the likes of Planning For Burial and Wreck & Reference. Both of which are currently signed to The Flenser. No coincidence there, I’m sure.
The music deserves every bit of praise it’s received, but I think there’s more to the album’s longevity than that. But what it is, I don’t know. What I keep coming back to is how amateur this whole album is. Everything on here was recorded with equipment that’s readily available to nearly everyone. I wouldn’t be surprised if a portion of these instrumentals are samples programmed into Pro Tools. It’s that everyman quality that consistently draws me in. This is a work of genius that could’ve been created by that local band that opened for This Will Destroy You that one time. More importantly it’s a work that could’ve been created by you. Now go do a deep dive into Bandcamp. I would hate for you to show up late to the next unheralded masterstroke.