Thursday, January 1, 2015

Best of (Last) Year # 5: Morbus Chron - Sweven

Morbus Chron Sweven cover
Not much coming to me this New Year's morning, as a brutal headache (not even drink-induced) is debilitating me, but I did want to at least acknowledge what I thought was the best release of 2014.

This, insulted metal snobs notwithstanding, is old school Technical Death Metal produced by a young band from Stockholm, heavy and progressive, and produced with lots of love for the music and little regard for current trends within the metal genre. If you like Death's Individual Thought Patterns or even--dare I make the comparison--Atheist's Piece of Time, you'll like this. It's fantastic.

Simple enough, when it comes down to it, no long essays as I usually produce are really necessary. Go listen, and Happy New Year.

File Under: The Best Album of 2014

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of Year # 4: Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal

Parquet Courts Sunbathing Animal cover
So, true story, I found out that Parquet Courts had scheduled a show in Gainesville for the last Friday in January, and had also booked one in Tampa for the following night. Then I saw they were taking a day off and playing a Monday show in Tallahassee. So I wrote them and said they ought to come down to Miami and play Churchill's on Sunday.

To give them credit, the response I got was quick. It was also negative. The band in their reply noted politely that February 1 was Super Sunday.

Didn't know that indie bands gave a shit about the Super Bowl, but hey. No Miami show. Guess I'll be driving somewhere. Melanie's got people in Tampa, and Cerveza has someone in Gainesville, we'll see who wants to roadtrip more.

Don't think that not doing something is an option. Parquet Courts have rapidly become one of the most important indie bands out there, and to be honest one of the few I care about. This Sunbathing joint is not their best one yet, if only because it almost doesn't make sense to talk about any one of their four releases as best. They've worked quickly (so quickly, in fact that Sunbathing Animal, though issued in 2014, is no longer even their most recent

Parquet Courts Content Nausea cover
release), and their output has been uniform--and uniformly excellent. Neil Young said that Crazy Horse was all one song; I think that for Parquet Courts so far, it's all been one album.

Sunbathing, since I haven't heard Content Nausea is a great fucking album, and one that draws on only the best. "Instant Disassembly" manages to channel both Pavement and Television. "Black and White" makes you think of Pavement and Wire.

Alright. Pavement are sort of like the elephant in the room, if people are always talking about that elephant. Yeah, they sound like Pavement. So what? Stephen Malkmus isn't bothered by it, so why should anyone else be? Hell, Parquet Courts could have chosen to sound like Linkin Park or something. And the other thing is, to sound like Pavement, you got to have good songs and melodies, and the ability to play noodly skronky guitar solos, harmonies and clever lyrics.

Who's got all that, anymore? Even Malkmus himself has been reduced at this point to only one of the five, maybe two on a better than average Jicks track.

Let us not nitpicks our talents, let us celebrate them. "Always Back in Town" is a great song from Sunbathing, the title track rips, and "Ducking and Dodging," too. Parquet Courts are quirky, intelligent and rocking, and they've got the right fucking influences.

Good enough for me, and damn good enough for 2014.

File under: According To You

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best of Year # 3: Thou - Heathen

Thou Heathen cover
Thou are a three-piece progressive doom/drone/sludge band from Baton Rouge,Louisiana, and you'd think at the very least just based on their hometown that they were notable. They've had a pretty decent career since they formed in 2005, and if they weren't quite Taylor Swift, their 2014 was pretty good, as well. Their self-maintained--though still incomplete--discography lists 25 different releases in which they've had a hand, and the current version of the band has played almost 450 shows. On March 19, 2014, National Public Radio of all people began streaming their 2014 release, entitled Heathen, and that album, released on March 25, which I myself managed to put my greasy paws upon some time later, has gone on to receive all kinds of accolades. For example, it was named Show No Mercy's best album of the year, was named one of the 50 on Stereogum's general list, and also made Wondering Sound's Top 25 for the year.

For all that, the album has its ups and downs. Some of the tracks do not differentiate themselves from any sludge doom you may care to name; others, however, sparkle. Lengthy dirges "Into the Marshland," and "At the Foot of Mt. Driskill" are shiver-inducing for their tone, and yes, melody. "Feral Faun," though after a pastoral intro just as long and just as dirgeful, did not grab me, because the tone and melody were not there. A third class of track, dubbed interludes, but perhaps given the brutal and unrelenting nature of the remainder of the material better understood as respites, lets the band flash its more proggy horns, as they are shorter much more tranquil works, employing organ, acoustic guitar and clean female vocals.

The entire effect even with the weaker tracks is stunning. Heathen is 75 minutes that hammer you, then gives you a break, then hammers you some more. With nods to Parquet Courts and Witch Mountain and Woods of Desolation and Mr. Jarmusch, and some others, I don't think it's the best album I've heard this year, but it is definitely one of them. It's very good, and considering that there are people out there who liked Heathen even more than I did, Thou are certainly a band to follow, and one that is dare I say, notable.

Funny to find, then, that Wikipedia's once-extant page on the band has been deleted for non-notability. We're all used to seeing Wikipedia act in strange ways when it comes to politics, but heretofore I'd thought that articles on the arts wouldn't be subject to stupid revert wars.

Wikipedia logo
The thing is, anybody qualified enough to know whether Thou and their excellent new album are notable enough or not to warrant inclusion in their encyclopedia would know that they were. Basically, you've got an editor who presumes to know, but doesn't.

This offends more than just my metal fandom. I know this doesn't apply to academia (so much), but the rest of us have made Wikipedia the default authority to appeal to, in much the same way we've made Amazon our default bookseller--all great until Amazon decides they don't really want to sell the books of those authors published by Hachette, or Wikipedia decides that this sludge metal is just a little too specialized for inclusion.

I don't know; maybe it's just me. The other thing I think of is that the band themselves could have put their page back at any time. So maybe they don't care. Which would mean that the site I look toward for capusle biographies has simply become irrelevant while I wasn't looking.

And that would be just as upsetting.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Best of Year # 2: Witch Mountain - Mobile of Angels

Witch Mountain Mobile of Angels cover
Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

The idea that the good stuff is over by the time you've heard of it will be a familiar one to anybody who came of age during the Bush presidency, but it is also a particularly apt one for rock and roll.

Were you at Cream's Farewell Concert? Did you catch a date on the Sex Pistols' American tour? Did you attend one of Kyuss' Generator Parties?

Me neither. Time waits for no man, all that, all that. And even if you're lucky enough to co-exist with the good stuff, your particular accidents of hometown and employment obligation most often conspire to shut you out.

Witness Witch Mountain. The closest analogue to them may be Fairport Convention, wherein a solid, though unspectacular, band with a strong vision releases a debut, then is re-defined when a woman of startling vocal talent joins up.

Witch Mountain's Sandy Denny was named Uta Plotkin, and her soaring two-octave voice, full of vibrato and blued notes each at different registers, turned a decent band into a great one. Witch Mountain play a fairly distinctive brand of bluesy doom metal. Dread as you would expect is certainly one of the emotions conveyed, but especially after Plotkin's entry, the music is also colored by brooding melancholy, giving it a multidimensionality not often seen in cult metal. And never mind Plotkin's voice--its capabilities are not often seen in rock and roll.

Witch Mountain South of Salem cover
Plotkin joined the band in 2009. Subsequent albums were South of Salem from 2011, Cauldron of the Wild from 2012, and this year's effort named above. I probably prefer Cauldron best, if only for the incendiary "Shelter," but all of the albums, including the new one, are powerful and emotive and distinctive against the competition.

And <sigh> now it's all over. Plotkin announced earlier this year that with the release of Mobile in September, she would be leaving the band.

The rest of the undeniably talented band--drummer Nate Carson, bassist Charles Thomas, and guitarist Rob Wrong--has been careful to emphasize that they will continue, as they search for a new vocalist, but some mere months after I discovered the group, it's hard not to think of Fairport, and believe the best is probably (once again) past.

Witch Mountain 2014 Carson Thomas Wrong Plotkin

File under: Carpe Diem, 2014

Friday, December 26, 2014

Best of Year # 1: Only Lovers Left Alive OMPST

It's that time of year again, when I look at the arid wasteland of this blog, and wonder whether I can post anything before the end of the year that will make the thing slightly less arid and slightly less wasted. I don't think I listened to as much new music in 2014 as I did in 2013, but there's still more than a couple of albums I heard noteworthy enough that I think I can come up with something to say about them. I hope to write more, no promises, but for right now, here's discussion of a rather noteworthy movie and its remarkable soundtrack

Squrl & Jozef Wissem Only Lovers Left Alive OMPST cover
There are motion picture soundtracks, and then there are original motion picture soundtracks.

I'm sure you pick up on the difference.

Quentin Tarantino, for example, has become known for assembling obsurities and forgotten hits into his soundtracks that capture the mood he wants to create. Yet his soundtracks are for the most part compilations and not original. April March's incredible "Chick Habit," to mention just one song that has become linked with Tarantino's musical curation, was originally released 12 years before it was used in Death Proof. And, you know, "Stuck in the Middle With You" wasn't original to the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, either.

What QT does is interesting, and sometimes maddening, but it's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm not talking about The Singles soundtrack, or The Graduate's, or the one to Clerks. Great music in all of these, and pretty much groundbreaking across the board for their use of the music in a film context, yes. But the music contained in the soundtrack was not original to the film.

What I want to talk about here are the few original motion picture soundtracks that have gained a fame separate and apart from the movie they were designed to score.

Pink Floyd More OMPST cover
I now understand that Barbet Schroeder's More is actually considered to be a pretty good film, but the Pink Floyd soundtrack album is much more well known, and I spent a good portion my life rocking out to "The Nile Song"--and chilling out to "Cymbaline"-- without knowing about Schroeder's paean to junkies.

I've written about how the album assembled from Tangerine Dream's score to Sorcerer may actually be their best; I know for a fact that Friedkin's movie is fantastic, yet the sountrack is to my mind, both better and more significant.

And I think this rare case--original soundtrack outshining the movie--may be what we have with Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive.

Only Lovers Left Alive Theatrical Poster
I think Only Lovers is considered to be something of a comeback movie for Jarmusch. After practically defining indie cinema in the '80's and '90's, Jarmusch's always-slow pace of work decelerated even further after the turn of the century. 2003's Coffee and Cigarettes is interesting and fun but ultimately insignificant, with its indie icons like Roberto Benigni and Jack White dropped onto the screen like bandnames dropped into a fanzine's music review--for the appeal to coolness only. Broken Flowers (2005) with Bill Murray full-swing into his late-career focus on introspection and regret was great, but 2009's The Limits of Control was considered a failure by most who saw it.

Only Lovers has its flaws, too. Jarmusch's films always look great, and his new one is no different. Set in both Detroit and Tangier, the film presents Detroit as a dark and nearly abandoned landscape, in gorgeous ruin, a space ten times too big for its current bedraggled population. And the Old City of Tangier looks exactly like what it is: 2500 years old, full of mysterious alleyways and tunnels slithering through the sandstone buildings.

Yet as gorgeous as this vampire movie is, it's not much for plot.

It's not surprising that Jarmusch has finally made a vampire movie. Ever since The Lost Boys, Western pop culture has varnished the older vampire tropes with a thick patina of cool. And Jarmusch has always of course been obsessed with cool.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston by turns have it all down pat: the dark shades, the even darker clothes, the buzz-music, the world-weariness, the name- and relic-dropping, the contempt for the squares.

Adam with his collection of stringed instruments and Eve with her books (and Christopher Marlowe with his notoriety) are certainly a solid foundation for any movie Jarmusch may have cared to make. Plus vampires, right? But each time a fragment of plot threatens to break out, Jarmusch's script squashes it flat.

Listen: your movie can't just be a music video, and your characters can't simply be receptacles for cool. A story might be nice, but there has to be more.

In a way, though, I guess, there is something more. There is the soundtrack album. Along with a Dutch lute player* by the name of Jozef van Wissem, the music for Only Lovers is played by SQÜRL, a band led by Jarmusch himself. And the music is such a success that the cynic in me wonders whether Jarmusch made the film as a vehicle for the music, rather than the other way around.

The movie begins with montages of our two characters as they go about their separate jaded ways in their separate jaded rooms, with the band's version of Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love" swirling as the camera swirls. Guitars highly distorted by wah-wah and fuzz pan across the soundfield as a woman by the name of Madeline Follin alternately howls and warbles. It's tremendous, and from there, in the manner of an extended music video, the movie sews together bits of Eastern-ish drone, doom, infinite delay postrock, and yes, Elizabethan lute into a collage that, when completed, easily outshines the movie it was created for.

I have reservations about Jarmusch's movie, but none whatsoever about his music. I believe that the Only Lovers Left Alive original soundtrack is not only one of the best albums I heard in 2014, it is one of the best original soundtracks ever made.

File Under: Vampire Blues, 2014

*And isn't this a nice Elizabethan touch, in a movie that features Christopher Marlowe in a supporting role? (Return)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Alastair Reynolds - On the Steel Breeze

Another book review I posted at Goodreads, if you can stand it

Alastair Reynolds On the Steel Breeze British book jacket
Spoilers of a sort:

I have long been a major fan of Reynolds' short fiction, but I've found his novels to be more hit-and-miss. I enjoyed Pushing Ice pretty well, and Chasm City, too, but Terminal World left little impression on me, while I was unable to finish both the first Revelation Space book, and The Prefect.

I think he's turned a corner with The Poseidon's Children series. Blue Remembered Earth was sitting on my bookshelf for over a year when I finally picked it up, but once I started, I finished it quickly, at least considering my usual pace. I immediately ordered On The Steel Breeze through SFBC, and that too was finished quickly. These books are in fact page turners.

Both books highlight sprawling and complex futures, against which brisk and mysterious plots are set, but that part of it is nothing new for Reynolds. Where he breaks new ground is in his characterization. Geoffrey and Sunday in the first book, and Chiku in the second, are well-drawn characters who act not simply in the interest of moving the story forward, but in the deeper way that is true to themselves. A consequence is that these characters make mistakes. Reynolds never gets so intrusive as to say, "hey look at these people screwing up!"--he just presents their decisions, and allows the reader to consider the consequences. Chiku in the newer one, especially, makes her share of mistakes. She's smart, decisive, and the kind of person who makes their mark, and you like her as she moves through the tale--but she's also arrogant, and probably a little cold.

One of any author's biggest challenges is transferring the needs of the story onto the characters. You need the characters to initiate action, else you have no story. But it can only be believable when you've constructed the character such that the decisions that are necessary for the story don't contravene human logic, or more importantly, human nature.

Alastair Reynolds
Reynolds passes the test in On The Steel Breeze. Chiku lies to herself a little bit about how important her family is to her. Yes, as far as story mechanics, that why she's the character that's being written about, why she's the character that has the adventures. But to the reader, it simply means that she is believable, and her actions are believable.


It's a neat trick, one that all the best novelists know how to perform, and one that I'm not sure Reynolds had pulled off in his longform work before Blue Remembered Earth.

Another interesting thing going on here is how this book retroactively illuminates its predecessor. In BRE, Reynolds posited something he called The Mechanism, basically a worldwide surveillance system that does quite a bit of good, eliminating crime and war, lost children, etc. He has a small community on the moon that foregoes the thing, but basically it obtains everywhere else. It is just accepted by the major characters, and Reynolds except when he's talking about this one lunar community never even brushes against the pros and cons. Well, in On the Steel Breeze, he gets to it pretty directly, noting one very dramatic objection to The Mechanism. Reynolds in some interviews I've read has been wrestling openly with the consequences of the British survillance state he lives in, but I think in On the Steel Breeze he shows he has made up his mind. Funny--people mentioned how Blue Rememberd Earth was a utopia; this book is in one sense a dystopia, and pretty clearly is something of a treatise on civil liberties. He reminded me in achieving this of Silverberg, always a good thing: like Valentine Pontifex, OTSB retroactively illuminates and elevates the first book in its series.

Jim Burns cover art for Valentine Pontifex
There are a couple things that keep me from giving the book five stars. The first is sort of a small thing, but VERY annoying. Reynolds wishes to present another of his complex characters as voluntarily sexless, which is interesting. What kind of person would give that up? But he never truly addresses the issue, instead highlighting it each and every time in passing by making up a set of personal pronouns for the character. Instead of saying "his" or "her" when referring to this character, Reynolds writes "ver." Instead of "he or "she" Reynolds writes "ve." It's an interesting concept--and it totally fails. PERHAPS if Reynolds had actually addressed the decision this character made to forego a sexual life, and delved into the particulars--but no: there's no way language of this sort can be anything but annoying. A mistake on the author's part.

And it's not particularly unsatisfying, but the fact is that the resolution of the story--the solution to the ultimate problem in the book--occurs offstage. Reynolds sort of explains why that had to be, so clearly he understood that some readers might take issue, but still--given that this grand agreement is some sense is the whole point of the book, I might kind of have liked to have seen it, rather than simply being told about it.


So, not a flawless book, but a very good one, and one that again seems to show Reynolds growing his game.

Through reading his blog, I gather that Reynolds has delivered to his publisher Book 3 of Poseidon's Children. But it's some months before it gets published in his native UK, and given the past history of his books, then some more months before it gets published in the US. So I've got a while to wait for the sequel. But I will be buying it, and I'm pretty sure reading it very quickly thereafter.



4/5 Stars

On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds