Friday, December 30, 2016

Such a Sumptuous Table We Set: The Ten Best Albums of 2016

Well, this long, bizarre, confounding year is nearly at a close. We lost some of the greats, and we gained those we didn't want. But through it all, we had our usual heavy splendour: 2016 has given us another fine feast in the world of music. Here's hoping to a better 2017, and days filled with songs strange and beautiful.

Grumbling Fur - Furfour

As I have said many times before, I have a great fondness for the intersection of pop and strangeness. Some of my favorite records take pretty, simple popular melodies and meld them with quirks that only serve to make their hooks hit harder. Grumbling Fur has tempered the experimental electronica of Glynnestra with a heavy dose of Eno/Cale for Furfour. Like Arp's More, a more cynical listener could call the sound derivative, but like More, that would be reductive; outside of Alexander Tucker's and Daniel O'Sullivan's Eno-esque vocals, the music itself is much more digital and layered than Eno's more stark ambiance. Grumbling Fur manage to sound rich and deep and a certain beauty shines through that we could use at the end of this year.

Melanie De Biasio - Blackened Cities

When Melanie De Biasio released No Deal, she was pegged as the next big thing in the world of jazz singers, her voice strong, clear, and beautiful. This year she turned sharply to the left with the release of Blackened Cities, in which her voice is just as lovely and powerful, but couched in haunting, industrial found sounds, like something out of Eraserhead. Armed with her piano, De Biasio reigns as queen over both a Necks-ish jazz combo and a hellish whorl of clattering strangeness that would fit well in the soundtrack of Silent Hill. It's a stunning combination, and I am impressed with De Biasio's dedication to her art and willingness to experiment. The work ebbs and flows from gorgeous to terrifying, and De Biasio is the anchor that makes it all work.


Ulver has always been a musical chameleon, from twisted lo-fi black metal to achingly produced European folk to electronic-spiked chamber music, but in the last few years they have shown a love of '60s and '70s exploratory jamming which comes to full force in ATGCLVLSSCAP, culled from improvisations during live shows and stitched together into coherent pieces. The album feels a bit like the live performances of Swans circa The Seer, that perfect balance of each instrument and the comfort between players to really allow the improvisation to flourish. Everything gels into such an amazingly cohesive whole, like a rock version of one of Miles Davis' improvs. If you want to spend an hour and a half inside a very elaborate headspace, you could do a lot worse than Ulver as a guide.

Agoraphobic Nosebleed - Arc

Another stunning turnaround, Agoraphobic Nosebleed's Arc finds the ultra-fast grindcore band slowing down...way, WAY down. At only three songs, the shortest of which hitting 7 minutes, the longest of which hitting almost 12, some of Arc's songs are longer than their previous whole albums. Kat Katz's vocals are pure, righteous black metal, but they are set within the unholy marriage of sludgy doom riffs and strutting, AC/DC-style arena rock. I'm always down for another doom metal album, and this strange trinity of hard rock styles works amazingly well. Despite the length of the songs, the album went by far too quickly for me, and I would love to see Agoraphobic Nosebleed do something similar in the future.

Terminal Cheesecake - Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients

Despite 22 years between 2016's Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients and their last outing, 1994's massive and glorious King of all Spaceheads, it doesn't feel like Terminal Cheesecake her missed a minute in-between. And even more impressively, this isn't a simple nostalgia record; Dandelion Sauce doesn't really sound like anything they had done before. This is Cheesecake's Hendrix album, pure amplifier worship grounded heavily with brain-melting guitar work. Neither the Butthole Surfers fried psych of Johnny Town-Mouse nor the enormous trippy dub of King of all Spaceheads is much in effect, as if Cheesecake knew that had already covered that ground and it was time to shoot into the stratosphere. The kings of UK psych have been missed, but 2016 finds them sitting the throne quite comfortably.

Comet Control - Center of the Maze

On their first album, Comet Control were a pure, immediate, necessary garage blast, seemingly coming out of nowhere and humbling every other band to strap on a fuzzbox in their path. Center of the Maze finds the band slowing way, way down and letting their freak flag fly high; while there are still the first album's muscular guitar workouts, even the heaviest tracks are absolutely bathed in psychedelic trappings. The mix is stew-thick, and the album just gets weirder and headier as it goes on, culminating in the enormous, fuzzed-out 20 minute suite of "Sick in Space" and "Artificial Light". On Center of the Maze, Comet Control out-Floyds Floyd, and we're better off for having them in our midst.

Black Mountain - IV

Any year that Black Mountain puts out an album can't be all bad. Like Comet Control, IV is the sound of a band stretching way out; compared to 2010's heavy Zep-fest Wilderness Heart, IV drips with psych sludge. The album is metal goddess Amber Webber's time to shine; while she got an occasional lead vocal on Black Mountain's previous efforts, her role in IV is much more pronounced, and her powerful, beautiful, terrifying wailing gives the album a pomp that Stephen McBean's windswept wanderer vocals couldn't quite achieve on previous albums. Black Mountain are still our generation's Zeppelin, but they're getting further and further from the source material with each album, evolving into something new, strange, and massive.

Gnod - The Mirror

A new Gnod release fills me with joy in the same way that Nurse With Wound's albums once did: opening a new Gnod album is like Christmas day, you never know what it is you'll be getting into. Just as the US is in the middle of our own uncomfortable brush with fascism, so has the UK been experiencing something similar, and after 2015's easy album of the year, the monumental 3-disc Infinity Machines, Gnod took their rage at the politics of their country and birthed us The Mirror. The exact opposite of Infinity Machines, a 3-song, 40-minute blast of righteous fury in the vein of Swans' seminal Cop, all thudding, industrial clatter, with vocals howling in anger, trying in vain to compete with the enormity of the music around it. The Mirror is almost insustainably tense, and by the end of the 20-minute closer "Sodom & Gomorrah" it feels like the Infinity Machine is devouring itself. It's easy to be mad about where 2016 has taken us, and The Mirror is your soundtrack to that anger.

Marissa Nadler - Strangers

After the beastly devastation of acts like Gnod and Black Mountain, Marissa Nadler's Strangers is a perfect antidote; a work of such simple, rich beauty that can bring tears to the eyes of even the most hardened cynic. Each song's instrumentation is so different, anchored by Nadler's astonishingly beautiful voice, and it's that variety, matched with the familiarity of said voice, that makes Strangers such a treat. This is an album to listen to in the dark during the rain, a sensuous lullaby that can make sense of even the most confusing situations. Marissa Nadler has given us one of the best albums of the year, resplendent in its simplicity even as it changes its conventions with each song.

David Bowie - Blackstar

Bowie does latter-day Scott Walker. Brilliant! Even before Mr. Bowie's absolutely gut-wrenching passing, which in retrospect was the harbinger of everything that has happened since, I knew that Blackstar had to be on my list. And when all has been said and done, no album is more worthy of topping this list. Recklessly experiemental, as cutting-edge as he ever was, David Bowie's swan song is strange and hideous and heartbreaking and oh so, so gorgeous. While nothing tops the arch-experimentalism of the title track, there is not a wasted moment on the whole of Blackstar. Like Infinity Machines, or You're Dead!, or More, or The Seer before it, Blackstar has a sense of infinite possibility to it, an album that will stand the test of time and reveal new pleasures with each listen off into the deep future. Bowie might be gone, but the legacy he left with us is staggering, and it's perfectly encapsulated within the strange, shifting confines of Blackstar. There's no better choice for album of the year.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Banging Pots and Pans to Make You Understand: Songs to Oppose Fascism

So, here we are.

I was contemplating a post about a week and a half ago that, though it seemed clear that Trump was doomed, there was still a pretty big lesson to be learned in this election cycle from the lack of willingness to have discourse, and the subsequent radicalism and hardlining on all sides that a lack of discourse entailed. Of course, since then the country has let its voice be heard, and I was devastatingly misled in my faith in my fellow man, so here we are. Here we are, where a man can be endorsed by a former KKK Grand Wizard and the founder of Stormfront, a man can have a glowing writeup on the front page of the 'official' Klan newspaper, and still be elected president. We have a long four years ahead of us, and unless we learn from the lessons of this year (still that bit about an unwillingness to learn from each other) the next election will likely be even worse.

So what's a right-minded American to do? Keep each other safe, fight the best you can, and if you need a little music to make it, my friends and I have whipped up this playlist of fascist opposition from all genres of music for you to enjoy. We're all in this together, so let's do what we can.

"We are far more united...than things that divide us." - Jo Cox

First up, here's the YouTube link to the playlist proper, if you want to listen to it without interruption.

Dead Kennedys - Nazi Punks Fuck Off!
Nowhere else to start, really, is there? 'Overproduced' by a phantom Martin Hannet, a blast of righteous indignation. A great way to start the day.

Heaven 17 - (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thing
And now for something completely different, to just show that at the time, even the most clear commercial bait single could be politically charged. Like a cleaner-scrubbed New Order, so stereotypically endemic of the '80s, undeniably catchy and with a great message.

XTC - No Thugs in Our House
Maybe it's a guilty pleasure, but I have a great love for XTC. Along with Game Theory, they really brought the sound of the '60s that I loved into the '80s, and deep within the time of the twin terrors of Reagan and Thatcher, XTC gave us this song, pointing out how our own blood can be tainted by the forces of oppression, how seductive regressive thinking could be.

Crass - Bloody Revolutions
"How can you leave out the grandparents of antifascist punk Crass? Bloody Revolutions is such a fantastic song, not only for its bizarre medley composition but for its razor-sharp analysis critiquing both organized fascism AND the armchair communists who blithely supported similarly oppressive regimes, the only difference being the people in power." 
- Matt Kellegrew

Linton Kwesi Johnson - Fite Dem Back
I think Andrei, who I started A Screaming Comes Across the Sky with, was the one that introduced me to LKJ, but at the time I didn't recognize the pure political fire couched in those slow, dubby reggae lines. This is a song for the radical, the ones who are out there now blocking streets and putting themselves at risk while I sit safely here at home typing on my computer.

The Dicks - Bourgeois Fascist Pig
"The Dicks are just awesome old weird Texas punk. Now, I usually hate most Texas punk because it's usually so purposely offensive for the sake of being offensive, which for me just gets old after a song or two. So yeah, a song about killing kids and murdering folks with a knife probably wouldn't work for me under normal circumstances...but I don't think these are normal circumstances anymore..." 
- Jim Snyder

Serge Gainsbourg - Nazi Rock
Gainsbourg's Rock Around the Bunker is just such a gloriously deranged album, a record from 1975 which married goofy, '50s big-band arrangements to tales of Gainsbourg's time as a Jewish boy in France during the Nazi occupation. Gainsbourg's modus operandi in this one, and in most of his work, is ridiculous, over-the-top lampooning, and it's beautiful to hear how little respect he gives his oppressors in this song, in this arrangement. You can imagine the stage show, with can-can girls in SS uniforms doing kicks behind Serge, the Eternal Pervert grinning drunkenly in a disheveled suit. Glorious.

The Cranberries - Zombie
"I'm an Irish girl, so I chose an Irish song. The Cranberries sing about the 1916 Easter rising against the Brits. A song for Republicanism." 
- Amanda Lauer

Charlie Haden - El Quinto Regimento/Los Cuatero Generales/Viva la Quince Brigada
The inspiration for this exercise. Haden in '68 leading an incredible jazz band through a trio of Spanish folk songs turned patriotic and pro-Republican when Franco was crushing democracy during the Spanish Civil War of the '30s. Haden wanted the songs to resonate with listeners weary of Vietnam, but this piece transcends time, and is just as essential today as it was in the '60s, or the '30s.

The (International) Noise Conspiracy - Smash it Up
"The (International) Noise Conspiracy's "Smash it Up" is dated not only in its French Situationist politics, but its jangly '90s guitar sound. The fun of it is in the clash of militancy and pop music reminiscent of anarchist-turned-sports-anthem purveyors Chumbawumba." 
- Matt Kellegrew

The (English) Beat - Two Swords
I have a deep, irrational love of ska; it's so much fun and such a pleasure to listen to, and The Beat is one of the greats. "Two Swords" is another song warning against hardline attitudes on both sides, with the wonderful chorus of "Even though that cunt's a Nazi". Be like The Beat.

Rush - Freewill
"I like this song for the idea that while we can go through life thinking that things get done to us, we can still take the view that we guide our own lives, make our own choices, and seek the good in ourselves and in others." 
- John Amico

Cornelius Cardew - The Spirit of Cable Street
Carnelius Cardew might be the most unknown artist on this list, a composer who went full-tilt on heavily orchestrated, politically-charged 'pop music' like this one, a pean to the rioters who clashed with Oswald Mosley's reprehensible British Union of Fascists back in 1936. Musically, there are a few phrases that remind me of Frank Zappa, someone else I probably should have put in this playlist.

Woody Guthrie - All You Fascists Bound to Lose
"Woody Guthrie emblazoned his guitar with the slogan 'this machine kills fascists'. He wrote songs that he believed did not belong to him, but instead to everyone. "All You Fascists Bound to Lose" is a public anthem. The machine of the guitar kills fascism beyond the literal, attacking it instead at its ideological root." 
- Matt Kellegrew

Charles Mingus - Fables of Faubus
Like Serge Gainsbourg, Charles Mingus engages with his foe of choice, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, by refusing to take him seriously. "Fables of Faubus" is goofy, almost cartoonish, painting the governor who opposed desegregation in Little Rock in the '50s as a bumbling buffoon. I included the lyrical version, since the lyrics are so biting and sharp, but the original instrumental from Mingus Ah Um is actually the song I'm more familiar with, having grown up with that record. Either one gets the point across swimmingly.

Sonic Youth - Youth Against Fascism
"On the grungy, bass-riff-driven second single off Sonic Youth's Dirty, prescient and profane lyrics fly off like metal shavings. It rocks, it's groovy, and it's straight to the fuckin' point. Brings ya back to the early '902, when a major label tried to sell the band, defined by their noise and discord, as MTV-friendly to a confounded America. Crazy times. Thank god we live in a saner era now, right?" 
- Dan Callahan

Jucifer - Королева - оленьи рожки Queen of Antlers
Grungy, gross, absolutely throat-shredding metal from the king and queen of political/historical metal, Jucifer. This one is about the female Russian soldiers during World War II in general and the Battle of Stalingrad in particular, who were trapped between the twin tyrants of Stalin and Hitler and had to defend their homes from the brutality of fascism. 

Frederic Rzewski - The People United Will Never be Defeated!
And we come now to the end, Frederic Rzewski's theme and variations of "¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!", a Chilean worker's unity song from 1973. By giving the piece the Goldberg treatment, Frederic opens up its message to encompass everything about resistance...everyone who listens will find a variation that resonates with them. The piece is romantic, aching, beautiful, and above all united, a show of force through solidarity that we could all take to heart in the coming years.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

National Poetry Month 2016: William Bronk

I've been busy, as some of you may have noticed, publishing a book of my own poetry and short stories, so this is my first post for National Poetry Month this year. Pretty embarrassing, I know. William Bronk is up there with Blake and Hart Crane as an influence on my own tone, so now with my stuff out there and available to the world, I thought it would be a nice time to share. Enjoy!

William Bronk: "The Smile on the Face of a Kouros"

This boy, of course, was dead, whatever that
might mean. And nobly dead. I think we should feel
he was nobly dead. He fell in battle, perhaps,
and this carved stone remembers him
not as he may have looked, but as if to define
the naked virtue the stone describes as his.
One foot is forward, the eyes look out, the arms
drop downward past the narrow waist to hands
hanging in burdenless fullness by the heavy flanks.
The boy was dead, and the stone smiles in his death
lightening the lips with the pleasure of something achieved:
an end. To come to an end. To come to death
as an end. And coming, bring there intact, the full
weight of his strength and virtue, the prize with which
his empty hands are full. None of it lost,
safe home, and smile at the end achieved.
Now death, of which nothing as yet - or ever - is known,
leaves us alone to think as we want of it,
and accepts our choice, shaping the life to the death.
Do we want an end? It gives us; and takes what we give
and keeps it; and has, this way, in life itself,
a kind of treasure house of comely form
achieved and left with death to stay and be
forever beautiful and whole, as if
to want too much the perfect, unbroken form
were the same as wanting death, as choosing death
for an end. There are other ways; we know the way
to make the other choice for death: unformed
or broken, less than whole, puzzled, we live
in a formless world. Endless, we hope for no end.
I tell you death, expect no smile of pride
from me. I bring you nothing in my empty hands.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Decade's Work

Hello to any and all reading! As of this afternoon, Amazon has started to carry a collection of my verse and prose from the past ten years, entitled Verdant Hymnal!

Eternal, undying gratitude to Chris B. Bollweg from The Lilim Chronicler for taking time out of his day to edit the manuscript and help me with the cover design. This book is as much his at it is mine. Many deep thanks to Symphony Marie for providing the cover photograph. It's crazy to me that this is real and I'm holding it in my hand. Give it a read when you get a chance, and let me know what you think! Thank you to everyone!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Simi Supports Our Cops

On the day of Nancy Reagan's funeral, it seems to me apropos to offer this, a brief essay on what I am loathe to call my 'hometown', deep in the heart of Reagan Country.

"Simi Supports Our Cops"

As you enter the blighted zone just East of Moorpark College, that withered necrocracy called Simi Valley, it’s understandable if a certain malaise might grip your heart, if spectres of damned Reaganites might whisper into your ear, “leave, leave this place!” until at last they quiet down with your vehicle safely making it over the Los Angeles County line. You hopefully have a luckier lot in life than that of your humble narrator, whom God has cursed with the need to drive back and forth through Simi daily, to gaze upon the sun-blasted youth hooked on heroin, or the embalmed old guard hooked on Fox News. But perhaps you, too, have to make the journey of shame through this forbidden land on a regular basis, you may notice a fairly new addition to the landscape; a pair of signs, one on Madera and one on Tapo Canyon, which proudly state “Simi Valley Supports Our Cops” over a clip-art graphic of a thumbs-up.
The existence of these signs seem to be proof positive that old white people are crazy. There have been no recent police scandals within the town. Indeed since most of the inhabitants are the same brand of clannish and mean, the temporarily inconvenienced millionaires Steinbeck  mused about, everybody tends to get along in that sort of if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us way. Really, the preponderance of police living in the town is stifling: on any given avenue one house in three might contain the family of a policeman. Who, then, are these signs supposed to convince? Are the police of Simi Valley so neurotic that they need to remind themselves daily of their greatness? Does the government of the town feel the need to visually pat themselves on the back, to remind themselves that no matter the trouble in other places in America, here we get along with our police? Was there really a town hall vote, a people taxed, a printer hired, a crew contracted to put up these smug reminders of echo-chamber greatness?
Simi Valley is a town with three Wal-Marts and no bookstores. It’s a haunting enclave to white, elderly, suburbanite tunnel-vision that is encapsulated so perfectly in a pair of signs that exist only to reinforce a belief that you could never convince the populace is anything less than a universal truth. Maybe that’s what they’re for: in “Simi Valley Supports Our Cops” you have a microcosm of the town itself, a statement of purpose from a hermetic world where the thoughts and worries of the rest of the planet are muted without a care. Perhaps one day, after the apocalypse, the signs will remain standing among the blasted landscape around them.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Hunt for Hearth and Home: The Ten Best Albums of 2015

2015 was an excellent year in music. Whether you were looking for pop, jazz, classical, or some weird hybrids of some or all of the above, the year had something you were looking for. Looking at my iTunes, it looks like I picked up 52 albums that came out over the past 356 days, which means that there's going to be a lot of wonderful stuff that I don't get to in this top 10. You can find other works of art by Torche, Sufjan Stevens, Slim Twig, Destruction Unit, Parquet Courts, and lots, lots more. But there are 10 records that, to this listener, stand above all of the wonderful work that has come out this year, and this is them.

Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear 

Father John Misty's Josh Tillman has one of those one in a million voices. Dusty, worn, and haunted,  Tillman's voice seems almost suffocated by the opulence of swirling beauty in his music. It's a dichotomy of style that works perfectly; the trail-worn drifter couching his craft in syrupy orchestration, like Pet Sounds if it was sung by the Dennis Wilson of the '70s, gravelly voiced and jaded. And Tillman is nothing if not jaded; the tracks on Honeybear are miserable meditations on love and death. If you like richly produced, viscous '70s AOR production, give Honeybear a try...Tillman does make an occasional misstep into obnoxious 2015 indie electronica, which is why this album isn't rated higher, but most of the album is aching, heartbreaking, and beautiful.

Hey Colossus - Radio Static High 

I was shocked when I discovered that  Hey Colossus put out two albums this year: In Black & Gold, released in February, and Radio Static High, which just came out in October. Both albums are fantastic, both pushed Hey Colossus deeper and further than they had ever been before, but in the end I had to give the nod to Radio Static High. This album has Hey Colossus at its most laser-focused, no 10 minute songs like on their previous albums, just massive, thick, grimy beasts that coil and uncoil and cover you like musical smog, shoegaze gone evil. It will be interesting to see where Hey Colossus go from here, if they continue their trek into a more traditional 'rock' band (such as it is) or if they use their next album to blast off into the psychedelic stratosphere. Radio Static High reminds me of the self titled album by Comet Control (I wonder if they've put out anything since...): not a wasted moment on the whole record. Fantastic.

Carter Tutti Void - f (x)
The addition of Nik Void to the tandem of Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti is revealing itself to be serendipity with every passing release by Carter Tutti Void. Their live EP Transverse in 2012 was a work of hypnotic beauty, with Void's guitar work splattering metal shards all over Chris and Cosey's minimal electronics. f (x) is a more integrated work that shows how different the trio operates between live and studio settings, with Void's guitar drifting and wrapping among the burbling electronic menace underneath. And make no question about it, 'menace' is the word of the year for Carter Tutti Void; f (x) is club music for a bad ecstasy trip, it's the rave becoming self-aware and crushing the pathetic humans in its midst. This is the perfect record to play for the candy kid in your life that needs to be disturbed a little.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Asunder, Sweet and Other Distresses
Godspeed You! Black Emperor is one of those groups that I really run hot and cold on. In general, I find their stuff to be way too fay and precious and way, way, WAY to overlong. They're too beholden to their samples, of ranting preachers and revolutionary fighters, that the music itself gets shunted to the background and half forgotten. None of this is an issue with Asunder, Sweet and Other Distresses, which is to this listener the best record in their catalogue without a doubt. Asunder takes it's concept from the Godspeed side-band A Silver Mt. Zion, which is stripped down and influenced by sludgy doom metal and experimental noise, both of which are on incredible display here. Produced by an alumni of Steve Albini's Electrical Audio, Asunder is tight and huge; the first moment where the guitars kick in will blow your hair back. And yet, there's still a melody under the waves of muscle...the end of "Peasantry" is achingly beautiful, and it's the blend of power, beauty, and experimentality that makes this album such a rush. If you've never been able to get a handle on Godspeed, there's no better place to start than here.

The Necks - Vertigo

The Necks remind me of Nurse With Wound: amazingly prolific and always variable. You never know what you're going to get with the jazz trio, whether it be standard, traditional piano/bass/drums, something a little more out there and unusual, studio manipulated wizardry, cool improv, etc. Vertigo is definitely of the studio-constructed variety, it's less Kind of Blue and more Bitches Brew, with everything having been chopped and mixed and reassembled into a behemoth that straddles the line between jazz and modern classical strangeness. It's also a little shorter than the average Necks album, if the usual 70 minute song length is enough to turn you away, perhaps 45 minutes will be a little more palatable. Vertigo shows that, in addition to being incredible musicians, The Necks understand the studio as an instrument like few others.

Sunn O))) - Kannon
Next to Swans, Sunn O))) may be the band that most encapsulates the performance as a religious experience motif. It's hard to have your band dress like monks and it to not come across as ridiculous, but Sunn pulls it off, coming across as acolytes who worship the holy amplifier above all else. Kannon is their first non-collaborative album in years, and it picks up right where they left off: doom metal taken to its enormous, nearly infinite, conclusion. The sound washes over you almost like a solid entity, thick black oil dripping from your speakers and swallowing you whole. This is post-metal, post-drone, post-everything, the singularity of all musical existence that is endless in its density. Kannon is the musical equivalent of a black hole.

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
My album of the year last year was Flying Lotus' incredible You're Dead!,  a modern retelling of Miles Davis' electric period updated with funk, rap, and electronica. Chief on that album was Lotus' collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, "Never Catch Me," a kaleidoscope of brass and bass and drum machines and some of the most impressive MC skills I've heard in years. Well, Mr. Lamar has pulled pretty much the entire Flying Lotus crew back with him for this solo album, a meditation on the state of the black man in 2015 that is part Dr. Dre, part George Clinton, part Sly Stone, part Miles, and all Kendrick. To Pimp a Butterfly isn't a rehash of You're Dead!, it's much darker, much more political, much more full of rage and anger at what the world has become for the disenfranchised; in a way, Pimp is Lamar's own version of D'Angelo's Black Messiah, another fantastic political record from last year that I missed adding to my list, or even Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, another record that is heavy on the righteous indignation and produced into a dense morass. To Pimp a Butterfly is the opposite of a feel-good Summer rap album, but it may be the album we most need in these trying times.

Shit & Shine - 54 Synth-brass, 38 Metal Guitar, 65 Cathedral
Warning! Some serious seizure warnings on this one.
Shit & Shine is another band that managed to put out two albums (at least) this year: there was the acid jazz Chakin' and this monstrosity. Shit & Shine may be the inheritors of the Butthole Surfers' maniac smartassery; 54 Synth-brass has that same tongue-in-cheek bastardness that Brown Reason to Live had, only instead of being rooted in Texas punk, it's rooted in purposely-annoying, satirical club music. It does the Motorik thing, it does the vocoder thing, and it's clearly doing everything to piss off club kids as much as possible, like Carter Tutti Void if they were a stand-up comedy act. This is another one of those great albums you can use to clear a room when you just want to end the party and go to bed.

John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure 

John Grant is an interesting specimen within this list; he's Father John Misty inverted. While Josh Tillman comes across as uncomfortable trying to pepper electronica into his AOR pop, Grant feels right at home with the sleazy analogue squelching of '80s gay club synths backing up his laconic muttering. Grey Tickles is Grant's paean to growing old, as he sings about wanting to go see Joan Baez, hemorrhoid commercials, and obnoxious racist friends. Grant slips perfectly between ugly club anthems and his own take on the well-produced '70s pop, and he feels right at home for both. This was one of those albums I had to go and buy almost as soon as I heard it, it's almost perfect and I had a lot of trouble deciding which record would be my #1 album of the year. If you need proof that modern pop music still has a lot to offer us, the answer lies not in the countless starlets on the radio, but in this mean, cranky old man.

Gnod - Infinity Machines
Never has an album had a more perfect title than Gnod's Infinity Machines. Throughout the 3LP's running time, you feel trapped within the decaying circuitry of an endless, malevolent supercomputer, like Harlan Ellison's AM going through its death throes for all eternity. Infinity Machines is glacial, massive, and pure evil, with vocal samples flitting ghostlike throughout the dying mainframe, so covered with echo to be unintelligible. Within the center of the album is its cold black heart: 45 minutes of black ice spreading over tracks 4, 5, and 6. Infinity Machines is an album that needs to be experienced, it is nothing and everything all at once. If Sunn O))) are acolytes, than Infinity Machines is the pagan God itself, the musical equivalent of H.P. Lovecraft's Azathoth. Listen to Infinity Machines' 2 hours in a single sitting, and you'll never be the same again. I haven't felt this way for an album since Swans' The Seer.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Summer of Hate

Summer of Hate: The Death of the Hippie Dream in Vineland and Inherent Vice

At the height of the Hippie movement in 1967, it seemed like the counterculture was pure energy, an unstoppable force of youth and idealism destined to rock the system to the core. By 1970 at the latest, the movement was all but finished, already looking quaint and naïve to those looking from the outside, idealism spoiled by the shadow-government policies started by the presidential reign of Richard Nixon starting in 1969. It is this darkness behind the pastel rainbow of happiness one usually associates with the hippie movement that Thomas Pynchon works his magic, and the failure of the '60s counterculture is the backdrop that informs every moment in his novels Inherent Vice and Vineland.

The specters of both Nixon and Charles Manson loom large throughout Inherent Vice, reminders of the failure of the hippie ideal simply in their mere existence. Vice's Doc Sportello is the last of dying breed, a shaggy dog hippie in 1970 who has yet to realize that the rest of the world has already gone on without him. Doc lives a life that would make Jimmy Buffet envious, an apartment on the euphoniously-named 'Beachwood Drive', where the town is “ahoot with funseekers, drinkers and surfers screaming in the alleys” (Pynchon 4). His beautiful, ethereal ex is known for wearing “sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt” (Pynchon 1) and his group of friends are a bunch of drug-addled nogoodniks who spend their days scarfing down pizzas with, like, totally far-out toppings. And yet, for all that Gordita Beach seems to be a kind of hippie paradise, there is a darkness at its edges that is slowly encroaching, with the ultimate aim not just to bleach everything to a square shade of beige, but to enslave it, to reduce it to a cog in the infinite machine of power and sacrifice. 
Stephen Maher states that “Inherent Vice is perhaps the most brilliant depiction of...the harsh end of the dreams of the 1960s generation” (Maher) and his statement rings more true the further the reader gets from Gordita Beach itself; at Coy Harlingen's bungalow up on Topanga, Doc and his pal Denis are assaulted by zombies, not merely addled by drug intake but straight-up crazed, a cult on a perpetual bad trip that Pynchon relates to the Manson Family, not the first or last time he does, as one of “them darker type activities” (Pynchon 135) that have begun to overtake Southern California. Gordita Beach may seem like a hippie haven, but once the story moves on, it becomes clear that it's an illusion, a sort of suspended animation where the residents don't realize they're already anachronisms.

As the book goes on, Doc travels out of California entirely, to a dry, dusty Las Vegas ruled by the almighty dollar, and back to Los Angeles to be nearly killed by the sociopath in a suit Adrian Prussia, a perfect amalgamation of Nixon and Manson if there ever was one: a blood-hungry violence fetishist who works for the physical embodiment of The Man. Coy Harlingen himself is more indicative of Nixon than Manson, a junkie-turned-COINTELPRO lackey who by trade sells out his compatriots to the all-devouring Nixon government, a man who is rewarded by his good work by being prevented from seeing his family again, a thousand deaths to someone who only wishes, in his age and wisdom, to be a family man. In the context of the novel, Coy “embodies the confused morality of the late 60s as he tries to find ways to provide for his family by not being with them” (Duyfhuizen) and in attempting to provide for his family, he allows himself to be manipulated by the vast, villainous corporate and government entity the Golden Fang.

Nowhere in Vice is it more obvious that the hippie dream has been crushed into absolution than it is under the wheels of the Golden Fang, the closest Pynchon has ever got to recreating one of H.P. Lovecraft's Elder Gods; an ineffable, inscrutable being that exists to enslave and destroy mankind. But Pynchon's Golden Fang is no alien being slumbering under the waves; it is a demonic being for our time, a vast, powerful, multinational corporation that has its tentacles in every aspect of the character's lives. The Golden Fang exists on every level of society, from the Mafia bums in Vegas to the informants like Coy to the all-too-human monsters in Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton, an organization which “on one level appears to be a consortium of dentists with a diversified portfolio of investments (including cocaine distribution), but on another appears to be a cartel of highly connected criminals with a diversified crime portfolio that includes all stages of the heroin trade, including the rehab centers for those trying to kick the habit” (Duyfhuizen). In the Fang, we can see the world of Nixon and Reagan, the world of corporations and clandestine alliances, the world of a people so without empathy or scruples that they get you addicted to heroin only to sell you a clinic to get you clean. This rot exists deep within Inherent Vice, a cancer that actively eats the world Doc and the other lovable hippies inhabit. There is no room for free love in Nixon's America, where developer Mickey Wolfmann initially starts the novel as a changed man, looking to give away his new communities for free, by the end the Golden Fang has reprogrammed him back into a pitiless Capitalist once again, his brief flirtation with altruism dead and forgotten. By the 1970 of Doc and Wolfmann and the Golden Fang, there is no place for unselfishness; Kennedy is long gone, Vietnam has been raging for over a decade, and Nixon has interred youthful idealism beneath 6 feet of dirt.

If Inherent Vice is a funeral for the noble hippie, then Vineland is the hippie thrown in a ditch. If Vice's Golden Fang was an all-consuming beast that rose from the depths to squash free love, Vineland by its in and of itself a machine that exists to end the idealism of the time that came before it. Skip Willam states that Vineland “virtually foreshadow[s] the dangerous reemergence of the countersubversive tradition” (Willman 1), and the book itself bears this out; while Vice examines the corpse of the revolution after the fact, Vineland is a book about a revolution actively being co-opted, and while Coy Harlingen's COINTELPRO ties are just one facet of the Golden Fang's power, Vineland's Frenesi Gates and Brock Vond are creatures that exist almost wholly of the countersubversibe cloth, and we can see Frenesi go from proud activist to informant for the monomaniacal Vond throughout the body of the text. The centerpiece of Vineland, and the scene which best dashes the hopes and dreams of the counterculture, is an extended flashback where Frenesi falls fully under Vond's spell, selling out her ideals, in the form of her lover and hippie leader Weed Atman, to the crushing machinations of the State. Atman, leader of the so-called People's Republic of Rock'n'Roll, is a hippie free spirit in the mold of Doc Sportello and Frenesi's ex-husband Zoyd Wheeler, but in Vineland's cynical paranoia, he's doomed, a face being stomped on by a boot forever, killed by a fellow radical after Frenesi spreads rumors that Weed is an informant. As countersubversive groups take over the Republic, the optimistic ideas that founded it are left by the wayside; Frenesi tells Brock that “It's totally coming paranoia” (Pynchon 239). So begins Frenesi's total inversion of the hippie dream; in her use of her body as a tool to get left-leaning men to betray their ideals turns the concept of free love on its head, and in her ignoring her own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of two generations of family that came before her, Pynchon seems to be indicating that radical activism is doomed to fail, that it is simply “paving the way for the triumph of the cynical, rich, and sun-tanned retro-fascists of San Clemente and Santa Barbara” (Glover). 
As in the Republic of Rock'n'Roll, as in the shadow-government '80s in which Vineland was written, paranoia permeates every aspect of the crumbling hopes of the hippie world; Zoyd lives in fear of Brock up to modern day (or at least Vineland's modern day of 1984) and even Frenesi is tossed out into the cold after the neuvo-fascist government of Ronald Reagan decides to do a little house cleaning vis-à-vis the retro-fascist government of Richard Nixon, with the woman scrambling to escape Vond and his squadron of black helicopters. Even Pynchon's own structure of the novel, a light, airy beginning with Zoyd leading to dark, confusing, manic flashbacks nestled in flashbacks like a matryoshka doll, invites the reader to feel uncomfortable, the initially easygoing nature of Vineland (the town) betraying the dark core of Vineland (the book). Douglas Glover states that “Pynchon puts the blame for the steamrolling of Hippiedom squarely on the Tube, the Man...and certain dark forces” (Glover) and there is no doubt that there is no place in Pynchon's world for the cohabitance between the iron fist of the government and the happy-go-lucky communes of peaceful radicals. Pynchon is cynical to the very end: though the story ends on a happy note, even that is given to us by the government; Brock has to end his hunt for Zoyd and Frenesi simply because his funding runs out, not because he is defeated by, or learns to accept, the power of peace, love, and happiness. Even Pynchon's happy endings are bittersweet, but at least this one doesn't end with a missile falling on everybody.

Thomas Pynchon, born in 1937, became a young adult in the late '50s and early '60s, and had a front-row seat to the rise and fall of the radical left during that time. It's clear that the movement has the author's sympathies; in both novels, the left comes across as fun-loving and heroic, even at their most inept, while the right comes across as dominating, villainous, and evil. However, Pynchon is not a straight-up idealist like his protagonists, he is a realist who saw how corruption ate the movement from the inside out, and it is with this realism that Inherent Vice and Vineland were birthed. At least, as much realism as can be allowed novels featuring radical biker ninjettes and evil dentists.
Works Cited
Duyfhuizen, Bernard. "God Knows, Few of Us Are Strangers to Moral Ambiguity." Postmodern Culture. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.
Glover, Douglas. "Mytho-Delirium: Thomas Pynchon's Vineland --- Douglas Glover." Numro Cinq. N.p., Apr. 1990. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.
Maher, Stephen. "The Lost Counterculture." Jacobin. N.p., 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.
Pynchon, Thomas. Inherent Vice. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. Vineland. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1997. Print.
Willman, Skip. "Spectres of Marx in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland." Review. Critique n.d.: 198-222. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.