My family’s beloved 16-year-old Siamese cat, Webley, died in my arms last year. He’d been a sleek fat kitty before he got ill, but he’d lost weight and lost weight till he was little more than a bedraggled shadow. At the end he could barely lift his head, and then the vet gave him the shot and he couldn’t lift his head at all. I was scratching his ears as I’d so often done before, and suddenly they dropped, and whatever I was petting wasn’t Webley anymore. It’s one of the worst memories of my life.
I’ve been thinking about Webley a lot while listening to the new Fire-Toolz album, Rainbow Bridge, which comes out May 8 on local label Hausu Mountain. Angel Marcloid, a Chicago musician who records as Fire-Toolz (as well as under several other names), made Rainbow Bridge about her 16-year-old cat, Breakfast, also a Siamese, who died in December 2018. The album is an idiosyncratic collage of guttural death-metal roars, electronic bleeps, and vaporwave ambience. Bleak, sweet, and quietly unflinching, it slides back and forth between two emotional poles: one boils with rage and grief, while the other is steeped in a comforting lyricism as gentle as a cat rubbing its chin against your hand. “It’s been a while, but I think about her every day,” Marcloid says. “I still have moments where I feel her close and I just cry a whole bunch. I’ve got her ashes two feet from me right now. I have a tattoo of her on my chest. So yeah, I’m happy to honor her in my music.”
From as early as she can remember, Marcloid says, music made her feel things “that are just so abstract and visceral and hard to put your finger on.” She was born near Annapolis in 1984 to a music-loving family; her parents constantly played CDs of hair metal, the Beatles, and her all-time favorite band, Rush. Marcloid started making little drum sets out of pots and pans almost as soon as she could walk.
Her first public performance was when she was seven. Her parents knew a local bar band, and she sat in with them to play drums on a cover of the Black Crowes’ “Hard to Handle.”
“This is a smoky bar, women showing their boobs and stuff–it was not an environment for kids!” Marcloid says. “But I sat down with the drum kit and we played the songs, and they were just amazed. They were looking back at me while we were playing, like, ‘Holy shit! This kid’s actually keeping time!’ I’ll never forget walking off that stage, and all these drunk, smelly adults cheering me on, and a couple of people just gave me money. ‘You’re awesome, kid! Here’s 20 dollars!'”
Marcloid soon taught herself to play guitar and bass too, and her musical interests expanded. As a child she had a formative late-night exposure to Morbid Angel’s 1993 video for “Rapture” via MTV’s Headbangers Ball, and soon she was also listening to jazz and electronica. She performed in several short-lived bands, and in the late 2000s she launched her own label, also called Rainbow Bridge. Through it Marcloid released cassettes and CDs by other musicians, as well as a blizzard of her own music under various names–including ambient acoustic music as the Human Excuse, punky dream pop with the trio Shadow Government, and electroacoustic noise as Water Bullet.
Marcloid came to Chicago in 2012 to move in with a girlfriend, who owned several cats and had just adopted Breakfast. Like most Siamese, Marcloid says, Breakfast “has always been a little strange.” She was neurotic and disliked the other cats, and she never really warmed up to Marcloid’s partner. In fact she only had one clear favorite. “She took to me immediately,” Marcloid says, “and always wanted to be on me and just wanted to spend all her time with me.” When Marcloid and her partner split up, there was no question who Breakfast would go with. The kitty ended up spending most of her life in Marcloid’s bedroom to avoid other cats. “The rest of the house was just scary for her. There were too many other cat smells,” Marcloid says.
“On the one hand, it may seem weird or maybe even borderline cruel to keep a cat in a single bedroom for their entire lives. But that’s what she wanted; she was happy.”
Marcloid has featured Breakfast in tracks throughout her oeuvre. “Spirit Spit” from the 2017 album Drip Mental (Hausu Mountain), for example, is a short wordless suite in which Marcloid imagines the usually shy Breakfast grown adventurous enough to go exploring in the house during a storm. The track opens with Breakfast engaging in some Siamese vocalizing and squawking, with thunder in the background. The rest of the narrative unfolds through auditory cues. “She comes down to the basement and turns on her ancient computer, which ties into AOL,” Marcloid explains. “Then she puts on a Telepath CD, which is a vaporwave artist that I absolutely love. You can hear the CD drive opening, you can hear the Telepath song start. And then she types some stuff and is meowing. And then she turns off the computer and goes back upstairs.”
In 2018 Breakfast began to go into kidney failure. She was constantly peeing in Marcloid’s room, and she wasn’t eating. Eventually she was so uncomfortable and miserable Marcloid had to euthanize her. “And that was just so fucking traumatic for me, and so emotional,” Marcloid says. “It really energized the search for truth and meaning that I had already begun years ago.”
Marcloid began making Rainbow Bridge during Breakfast’s illness. The title isn’t just a callback to her record label (which she folded around five years ago) but also a reference to contemporary folk mythology about a rainbow bridge that, in Marcloid’s words, “our pets either cross when they die to go to the other side, or they go there and they wait for us.” The cover art, by Marcloid and Jeremy Coubrough, shows a Siamese cat sitting in a green field with her back to the viewer, looking at the prismatic steps of a bridge that leads upward into a kind of bloated growth of exploding colors.
The chaos of different hues fits the Fire-Toolz aesthetic. As Hausu Mountain cofounder Doug Kaplan puts it, “There’s just nobody else that sounds like this, and there will never be another. Each track goes a billion different places but has a strong sense of oneness.” Marcloid’s other projects often follow particular rules or fit into particular genres; Mindspring Memories, for example, is mostly slowed-down and otherwise manipulated smooth-jazz samples. A recent album under the name Path to Lobster Believers is processed feedback improvisation. But with Fire-Toolz, Marcloid says, “Anything goes. It’s a no-rules catchall; everything reports to it. It’s the top of the pyramid.”
The violent shifts in tone and genre on a Fire-Toolz track often feel exuberant and playful. On Rainbow Bridge, though, they create splatters of emotion: nostalgia, confusion, loss, hope. The opening track, “Gnosis .oo?Ozing,” starts out as ranting death metal, with Marcloid screaming distorted, virtually indecipherable lyrics: “Arms wrapped in neon like a warning / A rainbow bridge unfurling / And now I lay listening to nothing / I feel my organs locking up.”
By the second verse, she’s superimposed smooth-jazz keyboard flourishes atop the noise, so that it sounds like the metal is battling easy listening, anger struggling with happier memories. “Layers in grief not unlike stages of passing / There are many / Not too many / Not so much.”
The video for the song “Rainbow ? Bridge,” created by Marcloid with Armpitrubber (aka Christine Janokowicz), provides an intense visual analogue for the music’s smeared palette. This song too starts with a death-metal feel, pairing double kick drum with Marcloid’s throat-tearing vocals. “Please don’t be mad that I cut your cord / Fear lodged in my gums / Pressing into my face with fingerlike force / Breakfast!” she yells, as images of the kitty strobe and dissolve into colors, lights, emojis, a door opening, SpongeBob screaming. Tinkly new-age keyboard ambience plays over purple clouds and the on-screen words “Heaven! They say I can sit and soak you up.” A guitar solo fit for a classic-rock ballad cuts through the shifting landscape, and then the song briefly fades into ambience as Breakfast romps across the screen and dissolves. It’s a vision of a loved one disintegrating, perhaps into nothing, perhaps into memory or heaven, while pain and happiness alternate in spasms of glitches.
“Heaven has no location,” Marcloid howls near the end of the track. That’s a statement of spiritual hope; heaven is everywhere, Marcloid believes. “It’s not any particular place. It’s something that is all-encompassing,” she says. “I think that it’s everywhere and everything. It’s the flow of life.” You can hear that hope on tracks such as “[Mego] ^ Maitri,” which is all gentle surging keyboards and pattering electronica, encouraging you to gently drift into an ether of soft fur and purring.
A heaven without location can also simply be a heaven that doesn’t exist, though, and that fear and doubt is also part of Rainbow Bridge. On the jittery “Microtubules,” a throbbing beat loops around and around as Marcloid asks, “Were you afraid of crossing?” It’s an unsettling question: of course she’d worry about a cat who never wanted to leave the bedroom going off on a long journey alone.
“When Breakfast was sick, anxiety was a huge, huge part of it,” Marcloid says. “And even after she passed, and I knew that there was nothing to be done, there was still so much anxiety. I became frustrated because I wanted to know where she was, if she was anywhere. I just want the truth. I don’t even care what it is, even if the truth is we’re all just dead, and that when my body stops working, it’s completely over.”
Marcloid finished Rainbow Bridge months ago, and of course she didn’t know it would be released at a time when anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and isolation would be so pervasive. In the context of a pandemic, the album seems even more relevant, not just because of its grief but also because of its prescient reminder of the importance of pets: during the stay-at-home order, animal adoptions have broken records as humans turn to cats and dogs to keep them company, and keep them sane, in isolation.
Marcloid adopted another cat herself after Breakfast died, and she now has three. “It’s incredibly comforting to have them during a time like this,” she says. “They’re a solid rock for me to lean on. Especially lately, because they just don’t fight with themselves. They’re just such simpler creatures, and they’re so much more connected to reality than any human could possibly be because of how complex our lives are. When they’re in pain, they’ll react–they won’t like it, but they don’t conceptualize and theorize about it. They don’t get into this existential dread. They’re just in pain, and they just want the pain to go away. That’s all it is. It’s that simple. We are just hopeless cases in comparison.”
Marcloid’s music, for all its genre shifts and chaotic oddness, can also reach for that kind of simplicity of thought and emotion. The six-minute instrumental “Angel (of Deth)” is elegiac, oceanic Muzak–a soundtrack to play while the waves roll in, or while watching a kitty sleep. At its conclusion the track breaks up into electronic blips and warbles, as though the world were coming apart and something else were wavering into existence behind the static.
“It’s a mystery because we don’t know,” Marcloid says. “So I have to love and honor that mystery. I don’t even know what God is, or if God exists, but whatever it is, that’s what I love.” Marcloid’s tribute suggests that cats may know more about love than we do. They trust you even at the end, to help them die. Rainbow Bridge is not just a eulogy but an expression of hope that they’ll lend you a paw in turn when your time comes. It’s a comfort to think that when you start up those stairs, there will be a small someone to show you the way. v