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Feast of Reason

As a band, I'd say that Pleasure Forever is a celebration of the ecstatic annihilation of orgasmic energy."

So asserts Dave Clifford, drummer for the vicious cabaret that is San Francisco's Pleasure Forever. Clifford, guitarist Josh Hughes and keyboardist/vocalist Andrew Rothbard form an unholy trinity of rhythm, noise and verse that twists and lurches like a wraith-ridden carousel. On the band's self-titled full-length, released last year on Sub Pop Records, eerie piano and gloom-choked vocals dangle from guitar lines as taut as a hangman's noose. The atmosphere is heady with ripe decadence and wilted decay, the bouquet of sex in an open casket.

Still, it would be a mistake to typecast Pleasure Forever as yet another histrionic, pseudo-death-rock throwback. "We're a romantic band," Hughes says. "We celebrate life, the good and the bad."

"Celebrate" might be putting it lightly. Pleasure Forever deconstructs the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll credo and attempts to frame it within a much broader philosophical context. "Our music, as well as our name, is intended to underscore human desire," Clifford explains. "It's a symbol of the beauty of humanity, our will to supersede life itself. We advocate indulgence rather than abstinence. Most people realize that life is limited, yet they try to do the impossible, to live an eternity of pleasure."

While the band's members themselves balk at the misconstrued word "hedonism" ("Didn't MTV have a 'Hedonism Weekend' contest with Van Halen?" Hughes jokes), there is a marked epicurean aesthetic behind Pleasure Forever. The cover of its CD, for instance, depicts Clifford, Rothbard and Hughes drenched in bacchanalian abandon -- an orgy of wine, women, knowing winks and dirty secrets that could almost be a scene from Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera.

"Sex is very important to me. It's one of the two primary elements that motivate human communication and culture," Clifford explains, "the other being our fear and awareness of death."

Themes of eroticism and eschatology are nearly indistinguishable in Pleasure Forever's songs. "Sailing with sunken masts/Choking dead with a leather strap/Whip the passion into a sour mash/Poisons passions absolute collapse," Rothbard drawls menacingly in "Any Port in a Storm," his voice shuddering somewhere in the conflux of lust and mortality. Images of violence, sacrifice, carnality and damnation are sung like sea chanties -- nauseous waltzes with the lovesick dead. In "Curtain Call for a Whispering Ghost," Rothbard's haunted reverie creeps up the spine: "Wishes and kisses traipse into traps/Set by the specters from brand new pasts."

"I wrote most of these songs' parts and lyrics because I had a broken heart at the time, and I was looking to end it all with a bang," Rothbard says. "But I was also looking to encapsulate something in the process. When I looked around me, it seemed like a whole lot of other people I knew were being equally self-destructive, but not bothering to find any level of recourse for their behavior or lifestyle choices. I'm lucky to have had these opportunities to release myself in music over the past seven years."

The purgative potential of rock and roll is, of course, one of its benedictions. "I'd mostly like to create music that, in some form or another, affects the audience in much the same manner as it does the performers," Clifford says. "I think our main intent as a live band is to present our songs in the most energized and cathartic way we can and hope that the audience will feed off that energy. I want everyone in the band and the audience to contribute and release themselves in the ancient traditions of trance music. By that I mean real trance music: throat singers, chants, gamelan music and tribal drums, not the bullshit, modern, techno-trance stuff that doesn't require much of the listener at all.

"I know that sharing the catharsis of performance with an audience is often a pipe dream," he continues, "especially when considering that for a band to be successful enough to pull off a mass-catharsis performance would probably mean playing for the lowest common denominator. So the irony of it all is that perhaps the most effective cathartic event is a typical hardcore slam-fest."

When the members of Pleasure Forever refer to punk rock and mosh pits, they are not speaking academically. Rothbard and Hughes cut their punk teeth in Linus and Angel Hair, two mid-'90s Colorado bands that were known for their tense, frenzied, Fugazi-fueled onslaughts. Angel Hair wound up gaining national prominence and, along with groups like Heroin, Mohinder and Antioch Arrow, helped propagate an offshoot of hardcore (don't call it "screamo") that grafted spastic intensity to willfully experimental dissonance and dynamics. Angel Hair's sound hinted at the theatricality and moral ambivalence of '80s goth as much as it did the cryptic rebellion of Nation of Ulysses; the band even recorded a vessel-rupturing cover of Bauhaus's "Stigmata Martyr."