Wednesday, December 26, 2012

More Moore part 5: Skizz

"Skizz" (1983)

I have to admit, I wasn't looking forward to "Skizz" when I picked it up. I had never even heard of it prior to doing this read-through, and my little bit of research told me it was Alan Moore's attempt at writing E.T., with the same basic starting premise (I have heard that the plot for "Skizz" was written entirely from seeing the first trailer for E.T. though I'm unsure if that's hyperbole or not. It wouldn't surprise me). For most I suppose this wouldn't be a problem, but get out the torches and pitchforks because I loathe E.T. and always have; when all of my young peers were fawning over the biggest thing in sci-fi since Star Wars, I found it to be incredibly boring, and nowadays I see it as one of the most pure examples of the cinematic 'cheap shot' that goes for histrionics and emotion while skimping on the actual depth. So I went into "Skizz" with pretty low expectations, fully expecting this to be the first of Moore's work that was flat-out bad. With that being said, "Skizz" turned out to be a pleasant surprise, leagues better than its inspiration and proof that, at the time at least, Moore's dialogue could buoy even the feeblest of plots. 

"Skizz" was originally presented in the pages of seminal British boys comic 2000 AD, home most notably of "Judge Dredd" as well as some minor works from Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and obviously Alan Moore. Alan had written for the publication for a while prior to "Skizz", usually working on the 1-or-2-page "Future Shocks" which were brief sci-fi tales that usually had punchy gags as final panels. "Skizz" was different though: an ongoing story that stretched nearly 25 issues of 2000 AD, the plot concerns itself with the interplay of interstellar interpreter Zhcchz dealing with punks and pipefitters of lower-class Birmingham in the early 80s. Skizz' answer to Elliott is 15-year-old punk girl Roxy, who comes off as impulsive, defiant, strong-willed, but ultimately good, and who I probably would've had a crush on, had I been that age in 1983. The dialogue is great, surprisingly funny given the nasty setting, Moore's world populated by surprisingly fleshed out characters like Roxy's parents and Lennie Small-esque giant-with-a-heart-of-gold Cornelius. The whole story exudes the same kind of class struggle  Moore had begun in V for Vendetta but on a smaller scale: there is no fascist junta, no heroic anarchist. There's just an obsessed government agent and a teen girl trying to keep her new friend from being exploited or worse. Jim Baikie's art is sort of angular but passable, considering most of the deck that came out in the issues of 2000 AD, and while he's no John Totleben or David Lloyd or Alan Davis, the characters, especially Cornelius and Skizz himself, exude personality that meshes with Moore's dialogue to create a very well-done minor work in the canon. Moore does commit the ultimate comic writer sin of denying pathos by bringing back an apparently-dead character with the ol' "he's alright after all!" line, but then the same guy gave us Marvelman and Watchmen so I'll cut him some slack for now. 

"Skizz" doesn't reach the heights of Moore's work prior, and no doubt there will be plenty other works in the coming months that surpass it, but I was legitimately surprised that this small work, one that I had never even heard of before starting this project, was not only passable but actually pretty good. "Skizz" doesn't have characters spouting iambic pentameter like Ahab or Iago, but it has heart and soul, a perfectly slight tome to enjoy with a roaring fire and a cup of coffee.
All in all, Skizz is weaker than anything else I've read of Moore's, but I still have a whole lot to go, and the dialogue is written well enough that you might be surprised by it. I certainly was.


Best quote: “They were cruel and ugly. There was so much hate and despair…and so much love…/…some of them have style…/…and some of them have their pride… / and some of them…/…some of them are stars.”

Up next: The Mad Hatter and the unstoppable cyborg killing machine in Captain Britain

Thursday, December 13, 2012

More Moore part 4: V For Vendetta

V for Vendetta (1982-89)

V for Vendetta was one of the Alan Moore stories I had read prior to starting this read-through, and when I first read it about 5 years ago it was the one I was least impressed with. The message is a good one of course, that security is not worth the price of freedom is something we should all remember. Mostly I was disturbed by how people latched onto the character of V, a somewhat superhuman anarchist, without worrying that he is a rather disturbed, vicious man who slaughtered innocents wholesale while he was freeing his country from fascists. I've softened my stance since re-reading the book though...while V for Vendetta is far from Moore's best work, it is an excellent start in the pulp genre that will take over so much of his latter-day projects, and as the average public's first proof that he can work outside of the superhero sphere and still craft a nuanced, gorgeously-written, impactful story.

Unlike Marvelman, V for Vendetta is readily available at the time of this writing, and considering Moore's celebrity, it's doubtful that will change anytime soon. As such I'll make this review a little simpler, mainly going through what works and what doesn't work in the story. The most obvious thing that words is David Lloyd's artwork, his use of color is incredible, soft, haunting watercolors give the book a dreamlike quality, as if the whole work is just a fever-dream of a Britain that might have been. It instantly distinguishes itself from contemporary work, even many comics put out today can only hope to emulate it.

For all my earlier complaining, V himself is another high point. He speaks like a Shakespearean in a book populated by beaten-down modern-day Britons, an enigmatic, flamboyant swashbuckler who speaks every line like he's on a stage. V is brutal and uncompromising, but that's the point and the beauty of his character: he's not someone to emulate, he's a dark mirror of Adam Susan, the leader of the fascist party ruling Briton during the events of the book. Both men do what they do because they must, for the good of the people of the country they love. The story wouldn't work as a simple good-vs-evil parable, in fact when you read between the lines it is V who does all the reprehensible things during the course of the story; Norsefire themselves are left to simply observe the populace, paranoid and ready to fall at a moment's notice. V for Vendetta isn't here to give us answers, it simply presents choices and leaves us to figure out what we want to get out of it.

The one thing that still doesn't work, even after the re-read and reevaluation of the material, is the 'real' protagonist of the story, Evey, though this might surprise some who haven't read far into the story. Evey is the surrogate for the audience, the young girl who is saved from a despicable fate by V early in the story and is gradually worked into his plans. She exists to ask the questions we would ask if a masked lunatic wanted us to pretend to be an underage prostitute for a lecherous man of God, and toward the end of the book she has an extended sequence where V tortures her to show her what Norsefire is capable of. It's easily the best moment of the book, uncomfortable enough to make your flesh crawl, and you feel for both Evey and V for having been put through this harrowing journey. Outside of the obvious problem, whether it's ever justified to torture someone until they see your ideology, it's what comes after that ruins her arc for me: Evey as a character becomes pretty uninteresting once she loses all her emotional baggage (a plague that effects most Final Fantasy heroes as well). She goes from a character we can relate to to essentially another V, seemingly unconcerned that this man just starved and tortured her for what felt like ages. I know that it was setting up that V's power was in planting ideas of change, and that he is a symbol which can't be killed and others could take up, but Evie herself loses the endearing qualities she had and simply espouses V's rhetoric for the small remainder of the story. It does pick up in time for a pretty explosive final issue, but between V and Marvelman I'm starting to get the feeling that Moore had trouble with middle sections of his early work.

In the end, V for Vendetta comes off as a very accomplished second work, showing that Moore was far from a one-trick pony and could deconstruct the pulps as well as he could Silver Age superheroes. Even with the lackluster middle section the book is still a home run and simply cements Moore's reputation as a comic writer who could do new things with the medium.

Best quote: "Noise is relative to the silence preceding it. The more absolute the hush, the more shocking the thunderclap."

Up Next: My friend E. T. in Skizz 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sound'a'Roundus: Christopher Bollweg's Top 13 Albums

As our inception post of Sound'a'Roundus, I present to you 13 albums deemed the greatest by Christopher Bollweg of the blog Recycled Hot Air. The albums are in chronological order and each cap off with a Youtube link of his favorite track off the album. Chris has a long resume of musical projects, from industrial (CiRCLE No. 5) to punk (Not Will Porter) to showtunes (A Screaming Comes Across the Sky), all of which can find their beginnings in these 13 records. In retrospect I should've fashioned this like an interview, but it's too late this time...

1. Miles Davis - Kind of Blue (1959)

I've always, "liked jazz", as much as the next American who doesn't knee jerk say it sucks on principle. When I joined Jazz Band in high school, I didn't know shit for shit about jazz music except Kenny G tried to claim he made it, I just wanted an easy A for playing bass. A friend passed me off a vinyl dubbed cassette of this album and it was one of the first times I listened to an album. I don't mean putting on some music and simply enjoying, I mean the only activity I was doing was listening to Miles and crew belt out some bluesy jazz.
This is an easy choice due in part to its broad acceptance as one of the greatest recordings of all time, Jazz or otherwise. While 'So What' is often pointed to for a shining track, I've always been partial to 'All Blues'. It's the type of song that's seen pain and knows it's coming back around again. I can identify with that.

The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Everything that can ever be considered a splinter/sub/subsub genre of Punk, Alternative and Indie Rock music can be traced back to this album. Anyone who made a CBGB's band had this album. Michael Stipe, Stephen Malkmus, and Kim Deal all have this album. The Velvet Underground's first album could be a greatest hits album if they ever got any air play. Instead, the distorted beauty of this avant garde, out of tune, pop rock disaster went on to infect the minds of a bunch of disenfranchised youth with nothing to do but sit inside and make a bunch of loud noise of their own. The Velvet Underground + Nico is so good because it's four junkies and a German model junkie that recorded such a complex album that makes the listener think they can do the same thing.
The Beatles hid behind their personas and invented tales of other people who went and played about in rock & roll music land while they were getting high on 'cid. Lou Reed sold his ass for a gram of smack before playing a show to twelve transvestites and wrote his next album about it. The Velvet Underground were The Beatles of the heroin art chic of NYC's gutters while all the hippies were moving to San Fran to smoke pot and fuck each other till world peace happened. You don't listen to ...& Nico to escape, you listen to ...& Nico to feel.

Led Zeppelin - Houses of the Holy (1973)

Led Zeppelin is the greatest rock band ever and Houses of the Holy is their best album. Following that logic, that would make Houses of the Holy the greatest rock album ever, which is objectively true. Houses of the Holy is so amazing, even Spider-Man feels inadequate around it.
On HotH, Zeppelin plays with genres like toys, bending them to their will. Even 'The Crunge's' foray into funk makes itself fun as the bridge it keeps on trying to find from the jangled folk hard rock of 'Over the Hills and Far Away' into the slinking boogie of 'Dancing Days'. 'No Quarter's dark psychedelia always reminds me of coming down from ecstasy only to be ramped into 'The Ocean', which has the greatest guitar riff ever written. Houses of the Holy from start to finish is satisfying and just so, damn, good. Unfortunately, IV will probably continue to outshine it for a good long while simply on the weight of Stairway, but whatever.

Metallica - Master of Puppets (1986)

Master of Puppets was the first time I had ever heard Metallica. Sure, my folks loved Sabbath and Zeppelin, but that was 70's dinosaur rock. It was 1986 and it was time for a musical revolution, baby! Not even being school age yet, I didn't know jack about music. I picked up my 14 year old uncle's Walkman and examined the case of the loaded cassette. The cover was a field of unmarked tombstones beneath an ominous red sky and a pair of hands descending upon them to pull their strings. Instead of being repulsed, I hit play in the middle of 'Damage Inc.' and was blown away. It was turned up loud during the, "We chew and spit you out! *jiggajuggaWAH* We laugh you scream and shout! *jiggajuggaWAH*," part and I was never the same after that. Metallica is woven into my childhood in the same way that Star Wars is and Master of Puppets is my Empire Strikes Back.
Everything about this album is so dark and heavy. While Ride the Lightning pushed the limits of their speed metal attack, when they slowed it down for jams like 'The Thing that Should Not Be', 'Leper and 'Welcome Home (Sanitarium)' Metallica showed that it didn't matter what their tempo was, they could still melt your face off with a cannon blast of metal up your ass. Cliff Burton's thundering bass gallop, James Hetfield's lyrics about eldritch abominations and how the rich wage war, Lars doing more than sloppy double bass and Kirk Hammit's furious shredding came together to make the album that cemented Cliff in the echelon's of Heavy Metal Mythology before his death on this album's tour. May guitar stores ring with the opening riff of 'Master of Puppets' to the chagrin of their clerks forever!

Pixies - Doolittle (1989)

You know those albums where it can come on at random and you think to yourself, "oh, I'll change it when a bad song comes on," and you end up listening to the album at least three times? That's Doolittle. From the opening bass of 'Debaser' to 'Gouge Away's' fade out there is not a bad note in it. Doolittle is one of the few albums I would describe as perfect. Everyone making rock music these days who doesn't steal from The Velvet Underground is stealing from the Pixies. Doolittle is to modern rock as Alan Moore's Watchmen is to modern storytelling. It's a watershed moment where everyone who was influenced by it has already had their generation with it, its revival and now the album's impact has been woven into the fabric of the cultural memoriate. Start-stop/loud quiet loud dynamics have existed at least since the 17th century, but David Lovering dropped some sweet backbeats to the same methods in 1989. 23 years later, Doolittle sounds just as fresh and new as the day it was released.

Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

I'm from LA, I grew up steeped in G-Funk, I was in a Gangsta Rock band that venerated the collected works of N.W.A. and its crew. Dr. Dre is who I go to when I have Chronic pain. But beat surgeon or no, if there's one album that stands head and shoulders over every Hip Hop album to this day, it's those cuts from the RZA, tha RaZoR.
Tha Wu-Tang Clan truly ain't nuthin' ta fuck wit on this raw and dirty album straight from the slums of Shao Lin. The Wu-Tangs three most deadly weapons lie in RZA's hard jazz beats (versus Dre's smoothed out West Coast funk style), Old Dirty Bastard (who answers the question, 'what does it sound like to rap on crack?') who ain't got no father to his style and a whole lotta illegitimate children trying to claim his lineage, and M-E-T-H-O-D Man with his street smart rhymes that are a playful counterbalance with just a little hint of that hard ass motherfucker hiding behind those bloodshot eyes. Even with those three, you can't forget Raekwon the Chef, by far the most solid of the Wu, cooking up something in most of the tracks on Enter the Wu-Tang.
The world of Wu-Tang is dark, scary and surreal. They dare you to try and keep up with them, Word-Fuing up a lyrical body count unheard of on the streets of Compton. Chronic 2001 set up the paradigm for party rap from 1999-2009, Wu-Tang set up the paradigm for everything else back in '93. If N.W.A. is the Beatles of hip hop (and they totally are) then Wu is The Velvet Underground.

The Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)

Billy Corgan is many things, and incredibly talented is one of them. Mellon Collie was the first CD I ever owned. I bought this double album it for 25 bucks, when CD's were $11.99-$14.99, at Tower Records. I've listened to this album more than any other, and have dissected, ignored, loved, hated and felt every other emotion that a person can feel because of a silly piece of music all because of this album. People joke about wearing out cassette heads and needles or tapes and vinyl from playing a single album too much. I did that with this CD. I played it so much that both discs were scratched to hell from travel and play.
Mellon Collie is the final summation of the first half of the 90's. A large sweeping opera that tells the story of disenfranchised struggle that no one wants to listen to because we're all living it. It's that beautiful baton handing off point from extended adolescence to adulthood, or in Smashing Pumpkins musical sound, teen angst to bald angst. Released in '95, a year after Cobain's death, everyone's album had a sombre tone to it that year. At least there's points of ecstasy mingled in with all those sexually frustrated teenage songs.
Fun fact: The alternate vinyl track listing makes it more of a cyclical story beginning en media res.

The Flaming Lips - Zaireeka (1997)

I just set up two computers, an iPod, an Xbox and busted out with a fine bowl of sensory enhancement and decided to listen to this masterwork as I write this article. Zaireeka is a Four disc album born from what's been dubbed 'The Parking Lot Experiments' in Flaming Lips canonical lore. Basically, band leader Wayne Coyne recorded a bunch of music onto cassettes, got 100 people together in their cars in a parking garage and conducted each person when to play their tape. This blew Mr. Coyne's mind and it pained him that traditional audio as we knew it in 1996 was inefficient to capture the massiveness of sound as it should be.
What The Flaming Lips produced was four CD's each with a section of the full album on it. Each song's instrumentation and arrangement was sectioned off and spread to be simultaneously played on four separate sound systems simultaneously to hear the album as it should. The reality behind this being that no two sources will ever be in sync, so each disc/medium has some drift and every playing is different. You can listen to each song in any combination you like and the combinations of effect are limitless as everything in the environment and the listener effects the event.
Now the important part, because of the experimental nature of the songs, it's allowed the Flaming Lips to craft some of the most powerful sonic expressions in the career of the band. This album is the literal representation of its title's meaning–a melding of anarchy and genius. Words really do fail to describe what it's like to experience listening to the album as intended, it's very akin to a meditation/effervescence/psychedelic/orgasm experience. People have come to deep understandings about themselves in front of my eyes while listening to this album. If that's not what music is all about, I don't know what is.
I'm so glad that The Flaming Lips are the Pink Floyd of my generation (and as such, why there's no Pink Floyd represented on this list except the specters of their influence.)

Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile (1999)

This is what it sounds like to fall apart. Pink Floyd's The Wall was a world of cold isolation of the world beating its way inwards. This is what happens after you go 'Outside The Wall'. The world is harsh, over expectant and doesn't give a shit about your latest tragedy because you're a rock star so you should be grateful as you laugh on the way to the bank.
The Fragile sprawls two discs on its journey to nowhere. Held together by two intertwining musical themes, The Fragile explores nothing cheery. Tainted sex, death, suicide, failure of self-actualization, loss of hope/friends/family, frustration, and stagnation all rear their heads through instrument and voice. Trent Reznor's meticulous production adds a claustrophobic feeling to densely packed songs such as 'Somewhat Damaged', 'No You Don't', and 'Complication' while the sparseness of 'The Frail', 'Even Deeper', and 'I'm Looking Forward to Joining You Finally' makes you wish there was anything to hide behind.
The Fragile is not a party album, it's a headphones album. Another album where something new can be discovered with every listen, where instead of a cluster of verse/chorus/verse Industrial Rock songs you get two hours of textures laid upon textures upon song components. Still heavy and in your face while on the next track you end up in a room with no windows and something breathing a quiet breakdown into your ear. It welcomes you 'Somewhat Damaged' and leaves you 'Ripe (With Decay)'.

Daft Punk - Discovery (2001)

Two robots from France made an awesome dance record back in the beginning of the Millennium. It was part story, part party album and all grooving. As a straight up House album, it falls flat and that's why it's great. Daft Punk already proved they can make a standard EDM album with Homework. With Discovery, it asks the listener to approach it with a childlike sense of wonder, to step out of your zone of cool. 'One More Time' could be an embarrassing song to be caught listening to if it didn't make everyone want to jump up and move till sweat's beading all over your skin. 'Something About Us' is a tender love ballad that wouldn't be out of place in a porn movie. Sampling 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger' made Kanye West seem relevant after the world got bored of Late Registration.
Every song on this album has been, can be, and will continue to be dropped or reworked by DJ's around the world. Discovery's scope is wide and pulls you along for the ride before you even realize it's been an hour and 'Too Long' has been going on for "too long" (after all, you felt it after the first few, "Can you feel it"'s).
Coupled with the DVD Anime Interstella 5555 it makes for a full audio/visual epic story about being a hijacked Alien pop star. Worth the watch as well as a listen.

Explosions in the Sky - The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003)

If the world ever gets upset enough at Texas to try and wipe it off the map, Explosions in the Sky would be the only thing worth saving the state on this weight of this album (sorry, Richard Linklater). 'First Breath After the Coma' opens the series of 5 songs that never dip below 8 minutes in length, creating a sweeping and fluid connection of music for 45 minutes. Explosions In the Sky's post-rock offerings are always a full experience. They don't just have series of songs, they write movements much in the same vein as Richard Strauss' tone poems of the late 1800's. Dynamically shifting from settled to storm, from liquid fluidity to bombastic chop, chiming out with sustained harmonics and unconventional instrument sounds from a standard rock band set up.
Each song is a long sprawling movement of beauty, bringing smiles just as easily as tears of joy and sorrow. It almost makes you believe that The Earth isn't a cold and dead place just by virtue of this album being.

Queens of the Stone Age - Lullabies to Paralyze (2005)

It's easy to paralyze yourself by snapping your neck. It's easy to snap your neck by nodding your head in agreement with how much this album fucking ROCKS. Queens of the Stone Age has been an outlet for awesome hard rocking since their debut and Lullabies to Paralyze is by far their best offering. Song for song, especially in the context of the full album, very few other albums can contend with how well written, produced and performed LtP is.
Plunking out a pretty melody on a toy piano, crooning in a gravely falsetto, carving out chunky low end power chords to rattle your bong, then shredding a psychedelic solo all in the space of the same song is the norm for this album. From heady whisky blues soaked hard rock, to wailing guitars and staccato groove metal, and even some fun little bits tossed in at the end to round out the flavor, Lullabies to Paralyze keeps itself firmly planted in greatest album territory.

Kinetic Stereokids - Kid Moves (2009)

This is the album I imagine the least amount of people have heard and that's really fucking sad.
Kinetic Stereokids is a band that I'm not sure is together anymore, but when they were they made some of the most amazing music I've ever heard. Their mix of Alternative, Rap, Folk, Electronic and Experimental forms of music meld together in an odd melange. It's like if Beck didn't take himself so seriously and did a Pet Sounds or Piper at the Gates of Dawn mash up cover album while he was supposed to be writing Odelay. Or Animal Collective if they had distortion pedals, turntables and less goofy lyrics.
Kid Moves is a schizophrenic mix of complimentary conflicting genres. 'Have a Nice Day' stomps like a southern Baptist church revival junk blues. 'Twisted Thoughts' samples old personal development records on top of a trip-hop beat and melancholy guitar leads with catchy lyrics laid on top. 'Assisted Living' is an acoustic, high energy, power pop song that bleeds into its partner track 'Convalescent Feelings', which turns the tempo on its head and cranks the reverb up to 11 with the eerie chanting of "Convalescent feelings take me away". Their second, rappin' vocalist, takes the lead on tracks like the palm muted 'Proper Etiquette' and psychedelic 'Drugs is a Drag' with the majority of the vocals being a somewhat frail, sometimes warbled, but always aching in its beauty.
Overall, Kid Moves is the most playful and unpredictable of this list. Twelve songs of incredible composition that is little like anything else that came before. In the whole musically dark decade of the 00's, Kid Moves by Kinetic Stereokids is a capper to the whole awful mess of new jacks smeared in white foundation and running mascara that makes it all worth the drollness of the mainstream music scene we had to share.

(This isn't actually the song Christopher picked, but 'Planes With Teeth' doesn't seem to be on Youtube.)

That's the list! Read it, learn something new, maybe find a new jam or two. Don't forget to follow Christopher at Recycled Hot Air! V for Vendetta coming soon!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Introducing Sound'a'Roundus

Well, now that Marvelman is all done, and V for Vendetta is well underway, it's time for something different to whet our appetites both intellectual and scatological. As sort of a thread connecting us here with Klen House Radio I'm happy to announce the imminent arrival of new column Sound'a'Roundus: Top 13 Album lists from bloggers, musicians, film-makers and whoever else from around our lovely web. We kick off soon enough with Christopher Bollweg, he of Recycled Hot Air, and what should be an enlightening set of records. Dig it!