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 apart...total 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.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

NPM 2015: Joyce Peseroff

Lilacs on my Birthday
The flowerets look edible before they open,
like columns of sugar dots on tiny strips
I bought as a child. Hard to bite the candy without

some paper adhering, as adding machine tape will
to large, red numbers. Lilacs are like that: another year
unspools without major accomplishment,

while I question "major" and "accomplishment."
And when I find in Costco those clusters
of pointillist pastel, I hope they will become

someone else's nostalgia—honorable emotion
propelling Ulysses toward Ithaca, and a woman
to set lilacs in her dooryard as her mother did.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

National Poetry Month 2015: Walt Whitman

How terrible I've been this year. The most magical of months is nearly over, and I haven't posted a single poem. Even now, as I write this, I should be writing a paper on Israel and Palestine, and yet I need to make sure at least a single poem graces this blog before the month is out. And as always, that's the trouble: which one?

I've always had a soft spot for Whitman, one that just got stronger as I got older. I admire his command of the language, certainly, melodic and haunting. I admire his politics, close to my own, or at least an ideal of my own. His early optimism is refreshing to me, even as it seems unfounded; reading "Song of Myself" it's amazing how Whitman (and Emerson, for what it's worth) could be so damned upbeat about things, considering that as Leaves of Grass was being published, the Civil War was raging on mercilessly. And after the Civil War come the World Wars, where it must have seemed like the world was going insane, certainly that was the view that T.S. Eliot took after World War I was through. Whitman, even in his later, more troubled works, just makes me feel renewed, and it's probably the type of thing I should read more often, lest I become a miserable bastard like Eliot. Something sweet for a month of magic. I'll try to have a couple more before the month is through.

"Out of the Rolling Ocean, The Crowd"

Out of the rolling ocean the crowd came a drop gently to me,
Whispering, I love you, before long I die,
I have travell’d a long way merely to look on you to touch you,
For I could not die till I once look’d on you,
For I fear’d I might afterward lose you.

Now we have met, we have look’d, we are safe,
Return in peace to the ocean my love,
I too am part of that ocean, my love, we are not so much separated,
Behold the great rondure, the cohesion of all, how perfect!
But as for me, for you, the irresistible sea is to separate us,
As for an hour carrying us diverse, yet cannot carry us diverse forever;
Be not impatient – a little space – know you I salute the air, the ocean and the land,
Every day at sundown for your dear sake, my love.

Friday, January 23, 2015

On English Neck a Norman Yoke: The Norman Conquest of the English Language

To the outside observer, the English language must appear impossibly complex. Unlike the strict morphology and syntax of Spanish, Italian, or Japanese, English is a labyrinthine trip into strange etymological dead-ends, seemingly random rules of pronunciation, and enough homonyms to leave even the most accomplished ESL student scratching their head. The reason for English's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach is tied inexorably to its history, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Norman Conquest of 1066 AD, an event that rewrote the English book from top to bottom.

Even before William of Normandy set his sights on the English throne, the isles which we now know as Britain were in a constant state of identity crisis. Centuries of invasions from the Celts, the Welsh, the Angles, the Saxons, and finally the Danes had left the isles culturally and linguistically schizophrenic, and yet William the Bastard's invasion still represents a total shift from what came before it; a lingual modernism at the edge of a sword. This is immediately evident in comparing the opening lines of the two most famous English works of the time, Beowulf, written around the 8th century AD, and The Canterbury Tales, from the 14th. Beowulf's opening lines are incomprehensible to the modern layperson, in a language that looks more German or Scandinavian than English, which betrays the Saxons and Danes Germanic presence: “Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum/þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon/hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!” (Anonymous 1) Despite this, in just a few hundred years Chaucer's Canterbury Tales offers us a piece that is recognizably English to the modern eye, if old-fashioned: “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote/The droghte of march hath perced to the roote/And bathed every veyne in swich licour/Of which vertu engendred is the flour” (Chaucer 1). 700 years is a long time, to be sure, but it's almost too quick for a language to completely change, as English did, and the proof is in the change of the ruling class when William gave positions to all his French-Norman followers and ousted the Anglo-Saxon elite the deposed House of Wessex supported. English became inundated with French language conventions, from the previously-unused sibilant C, to the new distinction between the Anglo-Saxon-derived words 'cow' and 'pig' (since the Saxon lower-class were the farmhands) and the French-derived words 'beef' and 'pork' (since the French nobility were the ones doing the eating). The Norman conquest also put the wheels in motion for another significant linguistic shift some time later; English tongues attempted to make sense of foreign French accents and pronunciations, which led to the eventual effect of the so-called Great Vowel Shift, where vowels were moved up further in the mouth, playing more off of the lips and blade of the tongue than the soft palate in Saxon and early post-Conquest language. The effect was startling; Chaucer's 'hu' (pronounced 'hoo') became Shakespeare's 'how' and words began to become more expressive with the whole of the mouth opened to their pronunciation.

So here we are, a thousand years removed from William of Normandy striking down the last Saxon king on the fields of Hastings and 700 years removed from The Canterbury Tales, and modern English is still rooted in what Chaucer spoke and wrote, whereas the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons is all but dead and gone. Of course imperialism will alter a language and a culture, but much like the way the Normans Norse lineage differentiated them from the French, so did the Normans blend with the Anglo-Saxons and create an uniquely English people with a identity removed from their conquerors. Whether it initially seemed good or ill, the conquest of England by the cosmopolitan French thrust the island's inhabitants out of the Dark Ages, and its appropriation of French and Latin linguistic practices was but one part of its modernization that allowed Britain to become truly Great.
Works cited
Al Shamari, A. (n.d.). The Influence of the Norman Conquest on English. Iraqi Academic Science Journals.
Chaucer, G., & Coghill, N. (2003). The General Prologue. In The Canterbury Tales (p. 1). London: Penguin Books.
Heaney, S. (2001). Beowulf: A new verse translation (p. 1). New York: W.W. Norton &.
Loyn, H. (1980, April). The Norman Conquest of the English Language. History Today. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Demeter's Abundant Bounty: The Ten Best Albums of 2014

And here we are yet again, 366 days after the last time, and it's time to round up what was great in music this year. And greatness there was! There were a few new albums from artists who dropped masterpieces back in astoundingly good 2012, as well as new releases from those I thought I'd never see again, and a whole slew of new performers to keep an eye on. The year proved to be tougher than last for writing about comics, but all that time spent in the car meant that there was plenty of time to listen to new records, so get out those gift cards you've hopefully accumulated over the past few days and let's see what we have.

10. Ergo Phizmiz - The Peacock

Among his countless operas, sound experiments, and thumping longform techno beasts, Ergo Phizmiz gifts us with impeccable, idiosyncratic pop records about once every couple years. The first of these, Things to Make & Do, is one of my absolute favorite records, and the second, Eleven Songs, is up there as well. This is his third, and it finds the maestro turning inward and busting out the acoustic guitars for a folky spin on his style. The Peacock could be looked at as Ergo's 'serious' album... there are no modified cuckoo clocks or teapots among the instruments used, and the whole record has a bit of melancholy in its tone, if not necessarily its lyrics. If The Incredible String Band or Fairport Convention and their ilk interest you, or if you were into the 'freak folk' banner in the mid 200s, give this one a spin. Ergo can give us catchy, poppy weirdness effortlessly, but The Peacock shows he can give beauty, as well.

9. Current 93 - I Am the Last of All the Field That Fell
By this point, Current 93's David Tibet is very set in his ways. Ever since he formally finished off his astoundingly wonderful set of folk records with Black Ships Ate the Sky about 10 years ago, the average Current 93 album has been Dave ranting his standard brand of poetry over whatever genre of music he and his bandmates/cultists seem interested in at the time. This style can be very engaging, but like Scott Walker's more recent releases, it can end up self-indulgent as well, where the lyrics don't connect with the music at all. That said, I Am the Last of All the Field That Fell is a perfect example of the style working perfectly, where everything just clicks. This time around, Dave has chosen almost lounge jazz as the backdrop for his poetry, and the tinkling piano keys give his words a creepiness that he was never able to accomplish with layers of droning guitars previously. The whole album reminds me of Coil's best work, a delicate menace that is really gorgeously terrifying.

8. Mirah - Changing Light
I've always been simultaneously impressed and made jealous by Phil Elvrum's talent on the mixing board. His ability as producer is second to none, and the fact that he can conjure up such soundscapes out of the shittiest equipment is testament to his talents, but the man has a stunningly awful singing voice, one which has made it difficult for me to appreciate his solo act The Microphones in the past. Thankfully, Phil seems aware of this as well, and in the late '90s he picked up a muse in the form of Mirah, a beautiful Washingtonian lass with a stunningly expressive voice that Phil could build ramshackle works of aural sculpture around. Changing Light is cleaner sounding than Mirah's work in the past, and starts off with a bit of an ill-advised electronic tinge to it, but like Cate le Bon's album before her, all is forgiven by track 4, in this case the haunting 'Gold Rush'. From then on, the album is widescreen, a film in sound that sends chills through your bones up until the very end. For those who want a female singer that sounds right at home within the swirling sounds of the studio, Mirah and Changing Light exist for thou.

7. The Budos Band - Burnt Offering
I had made an off-hand joke with the release of The Budos Band's 2010 offering, Budos Band III, that it was the perfect soundtrack for a '70s exploitation movie. The Band's sound is all horns, buzz bass, and clusters of African percussion, which would sound equally great on the soundtrack of a gritty cop movie as it would cut up by Byrne and Eno in 1980. Well apparently, somebody out there heard the words and took them as prophecy, because Burnt Offering has updated its world music leanings with fuzzed out '70s guitar and psychedelic organ, not to mention with ludicrous grindhouse-inflected videos. The album feels dirty and claustrophobic compared to the relative joy of the three self-titled albums that proceeded it. Put Burnt Offering on as party music, or during any drug deals or Satanic rituals you might be conducting, its world-music-by-way-of-Manson-family vibe is one that needs to be appreciated in the right atmosphere.

6. Jenny Hval & Susanna - Meshes of Voice

The thematic opposite of Mirah's plush opulence, Jenny Hval & Susana's Meshes of Voice exists in a black void of sound and voice. Outside of extremely rare guitar, the only instruments used on the record are twisted, manipulated noise, piano, and both ladies achingly gorgeous voices, spinning and mixing and flowing through the subtle, restrained cacophony they live in. The album is amazingly intimate, like you exist within the women, their voices reverberating within their bodies as well as your own, voices like ghosts swallowed up by controlled, raging feedback, only to push forth once again into black space. This is a bad album for the car, but an excellent album for somewhere dark and cold, where its sounds can scatter off into infinity.

5. Ty Segall - Manipulator
Ty Segall seems to exist as a ball of unrestrained energy. A year doesn't go by where he doesn't release an album, if not two or three, as himself, or Ty Segall Band, or Fuzz. Even so, the man has been slowing down since his 2012 collaboration with White Fence, Hair; first there was 2013s mostly-acoustic Sleeper, and now there is Manipulator, where Ty hangs up his manic fuzz for some eye-opening pop power. He still gets a few freakouts in, but most of the album is gorgeous, Brian Wilson-influenced '60s pop power, and it's almost certainly the best record he's ever made for it. Now it seems like Ty is taking Jay Reatard's path of transforming from a controlled guitar explosion into an absolute master of the pop song, and provided he doesn't meet Jay's unfortunate end, in Manipulator he's given us one of the best garage-influenced albums I've ever heard.

4. Comet Control - Comet Control
And this is another offering of garage might. Comet Control was once Quest for Fire, a scuzzy, slugdy Floydian mess of psychedelica, but like Comets on Fire evolving into Howlin' Rain before them, the Quest ended with Comet Control and now they're blasting off to the absolute stratosphere. The songs on Comet Control are absolute stunners, hugely heavy and phenomenally catchy, second track 'Future Forever' is one of those once-in-a-lifetime type of songs  that burrows its way deep into your very being. The album never lets up, either, its 40 minutes end in a flash, especially when 8 of those minutes are contained within the titanic opener 'Blast Magic', as much a statement of purpose from a new band as I've ever heard. There were heavier albums released in 2014 (Jucifer's new ep is the stuff of nightmares) but none as balanced between hugeness and hooks. Comet Control are going places.

3. Swans - To Be Kind
Swans in 2014 had the unenviable task of trying to top their release from 2012, The Seer, far and beyond the album of that year and quite possibly among the best albums of the 2000s. To Be Kind repeats a lot of The Seer's magic, and if it never quite makes it to the same lofty heights, it provides some of the best music of the year. To Be Kind's problem is almost entirely length; where The Seer manages to be the rare double album with barely a wasted minute, several of the new album's moments were clearly developed from jams, which almost certainly sound incredible live, but fall flat in the studio. Whereas The Seer manages a 32 minute title track where you never get bored, the corresponding moment on To Be Kind, the 35 minute 'Bring the Sun' it half awe-inspiring, half dreadful and indulgent. Thankfully, that's the only straight-up uninteresting moment on the disc, and if you cut out the more jammy tracks, you're instead left with a phenomenal single disc that has Michael Gira adding some serious funk to his abstract post-rock. The two best tracks, 'A Little God in My Hands' and 'Oxygen' make use of a horn section to blow them into madness, and opener 'Screen Shot' shows that Gira can do Slint better than Slint ever could. To Be Kind doesn't make album of the year this time around, but even as he hits his 60s, Michael Gira is still the coolest grandpa I know.

2. Gazelle Twin - Unflesh
Unflesh is incredible. First, take everything I said about Jenny Hval & Susanna's Meshes of Voice, about the power of the album's minimalism, and the feeling of being within the artist's body, and then turn it vicious, diseased, and insane. Gazelle Twin is Elizabeth Bernholz, and Unflesh is a soundtrack to how warped and evil society has turned femininity. Instead of Hval & Susanna's haunting piano, Unflesh is primarily anchored by sick, infested synthesizers and rattling drum machines. Here, Bernholz has done what Trent Reznor has been attempting and failing at since 2001: to produce an album where (wo)man and machine intersect and the result is failing, exposed, and psychotic, Bernholz's words filled with tales of self-harm, puberty, obsession, and a general inability to control both mind and body. Gazelle Twin has given a jolt to the decaying corpse of industrial music I never thought I would see again, and it's something that everyone has to experience.

1. Flying Lotus - You're Dead!
It is known by some, at least, that I worship at the altar of electric Miles. The things that Miles Davis and Teo Marcero were able to do with the studio as an instrument, especially once they cast off the shackles of 'jazz' as it was then understood, proved that popular music could evolve to an almost avant-garde state. In a Silent Way, Tribute to Jack Johnson, and especially the king of popular music Bitches Brew changed the rules of how we accept and process sound at least as much as The Beatles did, and at last we have 50 years later a successor to Miles and Teo in Flying Lotus. Lotus is Steven Ellison, great-nephew of John and Alice Coltrane, and You're Dead! is a swirling schizophrenia in the same way that The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique was; a living, organic omnivore that has devoured jazz, IDM, hip-hop, and rock, and spit out something at once alien and familiar. The album shifts from genre to genre suddenly, heart-stoppingly, giving us a distorted mirror of popular music since Bitches Brew, a whole strata of human experience distilled down into a 40 minute treatise on experience and perception after death. Thus, the two best albums of the year are linked: whereas Gazelle Twin gives us the horror of existence, Flying Lotus reflects back the psychedelica of non-existence a kaleidoscope of sound and color and feeling that thrives on the other side of the page from Elizabeth Bernholz's feminine loathing. It is these two sides of the coin that sum up all of the music this year, and it is Flying Lotus' warped and stretched mythology that provides a perfect overview of the year. You're Dead! is, without question, my album of the year.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Lens of Unrectified Night

Lens of Unrectified Night: God and Man in Outer Dark

In 1968, Cormac McCarthy published his second novel, Outer Dark, a work of scintillating darkness that established many of the stylistic choices he would crystallize in 1985's masterpiece Blood Meridian. In Outer Dark we find many of the first steps of what we can now call 'McCarthyesque' style; an indebtedness to the grand language of Melville and Faulkner, characters and settings steeped in allegory, antagonists as avatars of death and war, a small, but not total, streak of nihilism that damns everyone with the same unfeeling brush. But the most important McCarthyesque trope that is first brought to the fore in the black pages of Outer Dark is perhaps the most subtle: McCarthy imbues his grandiose prose with a hidden, serpentine Christianity, though not the faith that is preached from the pulpit every Sunday; his is the ancient, the mystical, the unknowable, the pre-Nicean Christianity that flutters, ghostlike, before and between the lines of the Holy Book, that the Greeks called γνῶσις or gnosis, knowledge. One of the central tenants to Gnostic belief is that the sphere in which we reside is Hell itself, and it is this thought that runs as a silver thread through Outer Dark, that the world is one abandoned by God, a dark, miserable land of the helpless, the miserable, and the already-damned.

McCarthy essentially gives away the game before the book is even opened; the title Outer Dark is a direct reference to Hell in the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus says that “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (English Standard Version, Matthew 8.11-12). Outer Dark takes this setting and makes the most of it, to the extent that even the land itself comes across as abandoned by the Creator, that “The world about which Cormac McCarthy writes is unforgivingly brutal and unrelentingly dangerous; it is also inflected by an ambivalent regard for the religious” (Potts 1). McCarthy describes the land as “low and swampy, sawgrass and tule, tufted hummocks among the scrub trees” (McCarthy 16) while the creeks that dot it are “choked with duckwort and watercress” (16) with “the swollen waters coming in a bloodcolored spume” (15). He describes the sun as “bleak and pallid” (10) in a “colorless sky” (11), and the miserable people who populate this land build their homes in “palpable miasma of rot” (109). The earth is overcome with a palpable darkness, with tendrils of night almost infecting the world itself, a world with no light, where days go “from dark to dark, delivered out of the clamorous rabble under a black sun and into a night more dolorous” (5). Unlike McCarthy's other novels, in which the setting is not only concretely defined but often important to the plot, Outer Dark exists in a setting purposefully ambiguous, great pains are taken to “[remove] virtually all the techniques that he used to ground and orient our reading experience in his debut novel” (Walsh 105). Though there is enough given in the text to make conjecture, even those tantalizing bits seem to exist to disorient readers more; “the modes of transportation (wagons and cable ferry) would seem to date the novel in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and the heavy dialect places the story somewhere in the rural south, but particulars of time and place remain conspicuously absent” (Owens-Murphy 161). Without much more than the most basic setting signifiers to help the reader, the novel takes on a lysergic, dreamlike quality which resists attempts by the reader of grounding themselves, allowing McCarthy to weave a story that is naturally Realist in text, while very allegorical and fantastic between the lines; Katie Owens-Murphy points out the “surreal quality of Outer Dark and its allusions to the Bible” (161) while Christopher Walsh notes that the forests, swamps, and “spectral wastes” of the novel all lend to the “feelings of claustrophobia, fear, dread, and isolation” (Walsh 102). Gnostic Christian belief states that “When we really start to observe the facts of our existence, we start to see that we already live in hell. Psychologically, we are in hell. Spiritually, we are in hell” (Gnostic Instructor) and we can see just from the setting of Outer Dark that McCarthy has written a world that is bleak, black, hallucinogenic, and in a word, Hellish.

Within this warped and blasted landscape, the citizens who inhabit Outer Dark's pages make up a parade of stunted, grotesque, tortured souls that only reenforce the fact that this land has been forgotten by a higher power. The people of the surreal, nameless land of the novel are miserable, poverty-stricken, and mindlessly dogmatic, a bizarre, stunted breed that is “only semi-literate and half-animal” (Geddes), a concept best shown in Culla and Rinthy's child, seen through the eyes of Culla as “gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor” (McCarthy 18). The main combat to this bestial primitivism is a turn to an orthodox Southern Christianity that borders on zealotry at times; a shopkeeper states that “We still Christians here” (26), and this echoes the ceaseless preoccupation with twin absolutes of the Bible and death throughout the story, bringing up comparisons to the smallfolk of Europe during the Black Death, where the church controlled everything and people's lives were painful and twisted and short. The citizens of Outer Dark seem to be only nominally human much of the time, “a series of physically grotesque characters replete with all nature of deformities and disfigurements” (Walsh 104); the tinker is described as “a small gnomic creature wreathed in a morass of grizzled hair” (McCarthy 6) whose body is permanently “bowed in the posture of his drayage” (188) from decades of hauling his cart through the land. Those that are whole of body are still twisted of mind: married couples are uniformly miserable and abusive toward one another, while the men who populate the novel are “meanhearted and sorry” (107), whiskey-sodden, pornography-obsessed, Bible-thumping cretins who exist to keep their women under their thumb. In one of the rare instances that Rinthy is alone with men and no fellow females there to counterbalance them, the prose turns sinister and sexual:
It was only a few minutes before they entered, stepping soft as thieves and whispering harshly to one another. She watched them with squint eyes, the man all but invisible standing not an arm’s length from where she lay and going suddenly stark white against the darkness as he shed his overalls and posed in his underwear before mounting awkwardly bedward like a wounded ghost. When they were all turned in they lay in the hot silence and listened to one another breathing. She turned carefully on the rattling pallet. She listened for a bird or for a cricket. Something she might know in all that dark.” (65)

As a result of this abuse and misfortune, many of the most malformed grotesques throughout the novel are women, twisted from their position as givers and nurturers of life to something hideous, misshapen and asexual, a “stooped and hooded anthropoid” (108) is described as curiously sexless, and even the women who birth children see them die as infants in enormous numbers; one woman that Rinthy meets notes of her children that “we raised five. All dead” (104). This ties in with Rinthy and her own troubled motherhood; the land of Outer Dark is too cruel for children, and the unfortunates who do survive are shaped by the environment into something damaged and helpless. Walsh says that “The gothic strangeness and grotesque characters in the novel tend to dominate our reading, and they certainly thwart any attempt to impose a realistic analysis upon it” (105) and it is this lack of realistic analysis that allows the allegory to flourish underneath, showing that this is truly a mystical, haunted narrative beneath what would otherwise be a Faulkner-aping (if not gorgeously written) work of Southern Gothic prose. Instead, the world of Outer Dark is a seething Gnostic Hell, and its inhabitants are cursed, bent and twisted by a world where God has departed and left its inhabitants to their own primitive devices. 

Standing alone within the squalor that makes up civilization in Outer Dark are our protagonists, the incestuous brother and sister duo of Rinthy and Culla Holme. Rinthy and Culla are “are outcasts who don’t quite understand the extent of their estrangement from the dominant social order” (Turner), sinners helpless within the machinations of an absentee God who are crushed and ground down by the Hellish world they find themselves in. At the beginning of the novel, the Holme siblings have committed a grievous sin by creating a child, and the whole of Outer Dark is their separate hunts for salvation in a world that goes from apathetic to downright hostile to their plight. Rinthy's character begins and ends in a “stoic and melancholic attempt to find her child” (Walsh 112) after her brother abandons it and it is picked up by a tinker. Rinthy is treated delicately by the doomed masses that inhabit McCarthy's pages; though she is in danger throughout, she relies on the sympathy of the people, especially the same broken, battered women that inhabit the land with her, and unlike her brother she is never stalked by the demonic Triumvirate that leave a trail of mayhem behind Culla wherever he goes. And yet, Rinthy is still damned like her brother is; she never finds her child (or never realizes she does, at least) and presumably wanders the Earth searching for that which will never be found. Rinthy fits the model of the Gnostic psychic, a spirit which longs to escape the material world and yet cannot escape being bogged down by it. She has cast off the trappings of material possession so loathed by Gnostics, hunting only for the fruit of her body with the rags on her back, and yet the sin of the flesh which created the life she is hunting for is too great to ignore. When at last she finds the tinker who had taken her child in, he sums up the whole of the novel in a single phrase, “I've seen the meanness of humans till I don't know why God ain't put out the sun and gone away” (McCarthy 192) and yet still she leaves empty handed, to search fruitlessly while the tinker is condemned like the rest.

While Rinthy's damaged innocence is ultimately undone in a world in which nobody is innocent, it is Culla who is a model denizen of this land, a being so twisted and so utterly lacking awareness of his wrongdoings that he will be punished in this blasted world forever. Throughout the novel, Culla is harassed and treated with suspicion, hatred, and contempt, with the implication that the sin he has committed, that of trying to hide and even destroy the product of his incest, is too great to be washed clean. Culla's denial of his wrongdoing permeates every moment of his story; when Rinthy, falsely believing that their child died, asks if Culla gave it a name, Culla replies that “you don’t name things dead (31), a sentiment that is mockingly thrown back at him by the leader of the Triumvirate hunting him toward the end of the book, “That'n ain't got a name...he wanted me to give him one but I wouldn't do it.” (174). Culla's abandoning his child is an “apt metaphor for the way man is thrown into the godless world, without direction” (Geddes), and like the God of Outer Dark, it is a father abandoning his son to the evil of the world. McCarthy again alludes to the Bible when Culla comes across an insane herd of swine that reverses the story in the Book of Matthew in which Jesus casts out porcine demons. Biblical imagery abounds in the scene, as Culla first hears “a faint murmurous droning portending multitudes, locusts, the advent of primitive armies” (213), and the stampede begins when they are in sight of the lone sinner. In McCarthy's narrative, the swine seem to be driven mad by Culla's simple presence, they stampede and kill their handlers before flinging themselves off a cliff, inverting Matthew and bringing the remaining men to a state of holy terror where they attempt to hang Culla. In Gnostic terms, Culla is a hylic, a basal form of man made up of cowardice and lust, who are doomed to be sucked in to the filth of the world, unable to escape; the last scene in the novel has Culla find the road he's been following for most of the story ends in a weltering, endless swamp.

While Outer Dark, like many allegorical works, contains few that we can colloquially refer to as 'main characters', from the standpoint of a Gnostic reading, nobody represents the concept of an abandoned, Earthly Hell as effortlessly as the ghastly Triumvirate that stalks the Holme siblings, Culla in particular. The Trio are indicative of every villain that McCarthy has given us since, the nameless leader in particular “prefigures many of McCarthy’s later antagonists, like the Judge of Blood Meridian or Chigurh in No Country for Old Men” (Turner). The Trio appears in six interim chapters between the twin travels of the siblings, always a step behind Culla, until at last they meet their quarry in a pair of tense, allegorical dialogues that allow the leader to soliloquize on the nature of sin and redemption, the latter of which he makes clear that Culla is incapable of. In Gnostic terms, the Triune are representative of the archon, servants of the absentee God, whether angels or demons, who oversee the Hell on Earth. Which the Triune are is unnecessary to discern, whether they are murderous demons or brutal, avenging angels, they leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake, giving the citizens of the various towns that Culla reaches a reason to mistrust him. They seem to be avatars of the warped and blackened land themselves, supernatural in the most pure use of the term, beings beyond human understanding; when Culla in their second and final meeting asks the leader “what are you?” he responds “ah...we've heard that before” (McCarthy 234). Rinthy never interacts with the Triumvirate, but she too pays for her brother's mortal transgressions: at the end of the novel they find and hang the tinker and burn the siblings' child to carbonized bone, a macabre tableaux that Rinthy comes across without knowing who the blackened ribcage in the firepit once belonged to. As a final cruelty, the Trio leave both Holme siblings alive and searching in a world that is ruined, made by a God who no longer cares, and policed by pure, sinister judgment.

Cormac McCarthy's works have the ability to transcend the mundane, to give us a fantastic realism that is aware of the darkness that lurks in the human condition. While all of his works ply in allegory and Biblical allusion, Outer Dark is perhaps the purest example of such. From the eloquent, Old Testament language to the gory brutality of its contents, Outer Dark exists like a work of Biblical apocrypha that never was, a moralistic tale that takes place in a world where moralism has already broken down, and it is in the dark, mystical beliefs of Gnostic Christianity, not the unrelenting nihilism that has been argued, that the work is framed. While Outer Dark perhaps lacks the philosophical musings or the bloody immediacy of McCarthy's later works, it makes up for it with a stunning language and a languid, dreamlike psuedo-reality. The Holme siblings' tale is horrific and will stick in the mind long after the book is closed, as a tortured, haunting vision of Hell in which Hell is simply the absence of God.

Works Cited
Geddes, Dan. "McCarthy’s Outer Dark: Existentialist Darkness As Mood." The Satirist. N.p., Sept. 1999. 
Instructor, Gnostic. "Heaven, Hell and Liberation." Gnostic Teachings
McCarthy, Cormac. Outer Dark. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.
Owens-Murphy, Kaite. "The Frontier Ethic Behind Cormac McCarthy's Southern Fiction." Arizona Quarterly 67.2 (2011): n. pag. Project MUSE
Potts, Matthew L. "The Frail Agony of Grace: Story, Act, and Sacrament in the Fiction of Cormac McCarthy." Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard. Harvard University, 1 May 2013. 
The English Standard Version Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments with Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Turner, Edwin. "Outer Dark - Cormac McCarthy." Biblioklept. N.p., 29 June 2009. 
Walsh, Christopher J. In the Wake of the Sun: Navigating the Southern Works of Cormac McCarthy. Knoxville, TN: Newfound, U of Tennessee Libraries, 2009. Print.