Thursday, December 26, 2013

Demeter's Bountiful Harvest: The Ten Best Albums of 2013



And here we are, the day after Sol Invictus, and it seems as good a time as any to discuss the albums that made my year. Last year was easy, with the release of a new Swans album, a new Scott Walker album, and some fantastic works from groups like Goat and Ty Segall. I was worried at first that this year would be tougher, with no absolute obvious standouts, but starting in September the record industry proved it was just saving its best for later in the year, and some jaw-dropping moments started arriving with amazing frequency. So as you're all calming down from your Sun-worship (that's why everything was closed yesterday, right?) enjoy some wonderful music, and hopefully use some of those iTunes gift cards you picked up to grab some of these amazing works! And don't forget, the REAL best album of the year is free!


10. Fuzz - Fuzz


The ever-prolific Ty Segall is amazing not just in his prodigious output, which rivals any artist this side of Ergo Phizmiz, but in the very quality of the work he releases, which is all the more incredible when he manages several releases a year. In addition to his stripped-down, acoustic Sleeper, which missed this list by only the narrowest of margins, Ty went full band mode with the release of Fuzz, an acid-scarred rock behemoth which embraces his innate Sabbath-worship. Ty, along with cohorts Charles Moothart and Roland Cosio, offers a suite of tunes absolutely drenched in reverb and fuzz, with unintelligible vocals, all-encompassing guitar squall, and paper-thin drums making Fuzz a Blue Cheer for the new century.

9. Forest Swords - Engravings 


Matthew Barnes of Forest Swords has given us something special in Engravings: a dub album which has nothing at all to do musically with reggae. Barnes' productions are drowning in echo, vocal samples intoning wordlessly over beats that sound like distant thunder. There's a trip-hop vibe not unlike Massive Attack or Portishead hidden in here, but Barnes has removed the smoky, sultry vocals that make trip-hop so unique, and replaced them with nothing but his occasional apocalyptic samples, and a repetition almost reminiscent of drone artists from the '60s. Engravings must be among 2013's most rich productions from a sonic standpoint, and will reward repeated listenings with new tidbits for a long time to come.


8. Steve Mason - Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time


Slowly, we lumber on toward the inevitable date in December of next year, when The Beta Band will have been defunct for a decade. Yet though we can rightly mourn this sad notion, we should still celebrate the fact that Steve Mason is making solo records as necessary and awe-inspiring as his more famous former band. Mason's Monkey Minds is a blend of the Beta Band's dub-heavy, experimental older work and their laser-sharp, pop focused final albums, a glorious mess that skips from field recordings of street buskers to choral pop that reaches for the Heavens. The Betas may be gone, but Steve Mason keeps the giddy rush alive in his own work.

7. Lightning Dust - Fantasy


2013 was the year for the Black Mountain side projects. First, head Mountain Stephen McBean gave us Grim Towers, a collection of spaced-out folk rock recorded with Imaad Wasif, and now we have the third album from Amber Webber and Joshua Wells' Lightning Dust, Fantasy. Whereas first two Lightning Dust albums were spare, haunting folk, bringing to mind Sandy Denny's solo records from the early '70s, Fantasy adds dark, cavernous synthesizer, feeling like a mix between Kendra Smith's work with Opal and Stevie Nicks' most austere '80s material. And on top of it all is Amber Webber's achingly gorgeous voice, a husky warble that sounds like nobody else is the business now. Lightning Dust's boomy synths evoke heartbreak effortlessly, and the whole album offers a glacial beauty which I can't recommend enough.

6. Adam Green & Binki Shapiro - Adam Green & Binki Shapiro


I've dreamed for years now of recording an album similar to the absolutely seminal first album by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. Song-stories with trading male/female vocals over quintessential '60s orchestration is such an impressive formula that it always confused me as to why nobody else has really done it, and it took until 2013 before a pair pulled it off so perfectly. Adam Green's work with the Moldy Peaches was uniformly embarrassing, juvenile, and really just straight-up awful, but since then he's matured into a smart-ass pop maverick, this generation's Todd Rundgren, writing lyrics that are snarky and borderline offensive while couched in music that is undeniably catchy and remains stuck in your head for days on end. On this album, however, he drops the satyrlike sense of humor, and turns in a set of tales about love and loss, sung to perfection by Binki Shapiro's sweet, honey-like voice, blended with Green's own hopeless baritone. The result is an album for romantics that hate romance, with Green and Shapiro's storm-tossed tales giving giving us bittersweet hope and doomed regret.

5. Grumbling Fur - Glynnaestra

(For reasons known but to god, Blogger won't let me link to The Ballad of Roy Batty. So go watch it here. Go watch it!)


Alexander Tucker is, in many ways, the Ty Segall from across the pond. Maddeningly prolific and willing to collaborate with anyone who comes within a ten-foot radius, Tucker's Syd Barrett-informed oeuvre has grown exponentially in the last few years, and gave us two towering collaborations in 2013: the cracked, slippery Metafather with Daniel Beban as Imbogodom, and the lysergic beauty of Grumbling Fur's Glynnaestra with Daniel O'Sullivan. Glynnaestra is another towering production, this one a mix of Tucker's dreamlike, cyclical folk and O'Sullivan's dense, hypnotic electronica, a blend that gives us songs of immense beauty, with waves of guitars and coloring atmospherics giving a stage to both men muttering through Roy Batty's final soliloquy from Blade Runner. I've heard that Glynnaetra is the perfect album to take drugs to and I don't doubt it, but even stone sober and boring like me, this is a work of impossible, unusual, all-devouring majesty.

4. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push the Sky Away


Even nearly 25 years in, Nick Cave's greatest ability is that you never know which way he will jump. For about a decade now, Cave has embraced his inner Iggy Pop, delivering two albums of cracked skronk as Grinderman and an album of dirty Christian funk in Dig, Lazarus, Dig!! before releasing Push the Sky Away, which very well could be the quietest, mellowest album of his career. Backed by the Bad Seeds compressing their work into gentle loops, even as Cave's lyrics belie the soft, aristocratic menace beating within. The whole work drifts like a boat on a sea, the languid pieces congealing into a haze whole in which each sparse instrument is nearly swallowed by the ether surrounding them. Cave understands that the album format can be true art, and his impressionistic brush strokes here give us an album at once placelessly malevolent and yet comforting as the womb.

3. Grant Hart - The Argument


As a literature nerd, it is perhaps unsurprising that I give Grant Hart's take on Paradise Lost such high praise, but even beyond the concept it's a fantastic album, one worthy of Grant's affirmed masterworks with Hüsker Dü like Zen Arcade. Similar to that earlier album, The Argument is a musical kaleidoscope, moving from pop to punk to avant-garde and back again with a zeal, giving us the rock-solid cabaret of "Sin" to the '30s radio pop of "Underneath the Apple Tree," and Hart has the musical chops to make it feel like more that just a collection of genre exercises. Among the best simple songs of the year, The Argument shows that one of the premier storytellers of the punk generation hasn't lost the spark in the intervening decades.

2. Stara Rzeka - Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem 


To anyone who is willing to listen, I have never been shy in extolling the virtues of Swans' masterpiece Soundtracks for the Blind. To me, Michael Gira's two-disc monolith is the perfect album; relentlessly experimental and yet effortlessly capable of evoking such rushes of emotion, displaying the best of what is now termed 'post-rock' without collapsing under its own pretensions (so I think, at least). It's an album that sounds like little else that came before it or since, with the exception of the first couple Godspeed You Black Emperor! releases, and now we can add this incredible LP from Polish band Stara Rzeka to the list. Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem understands Soundtracks and the tracks are awash in sonic grandeur similar to what Michael Gira did back in 1996, but it gives its own take on the matter, infusing the towering synth washes with both clean, exacting, picked acoustic guitar and an occasional foray down into buzzy black metal, both of which seem to be influenced by the earlier albums of Portland's Agalloch. The songs are long and twisting, working their way through suites of signal and noise, typically ending up far where they began. At once melancholy and labyrinthine, Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem is a classic that recalls avenues otherwise forgotten about in music, and deserves far more listens than it will likely get.

1. Arp - More


And at last we make it to number 1...the best album of the year. And what's most surprising is that, at the beginning of the year, you'd never guess it would even exist. Arp is Alexis Georgopoulos, a New York producer who, until now, made albums of glacial, skeletal synth compositions, deep and subtle like La Monte Young or Charlemagne Palestine would have done decades ago. With the exception of a single vocal piece buried far at the end of 2010's The Soft Wave, Alexis never hinted at the slightest predisposition toward pop music, which makes More all the more stunning: an album composed almost entirely of achingly beautiful, Eno and Cale-inspired pop tunes. Georgopoulos has barely any vocal range at all, and yet that makes his songs all the more lovely, similar to how LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy could infuse his limited range into moments of tender vulnerability. The songs are simple, mostly piano, spare guitar, and a quick drum loop, but that minimalism brings out the gorgeous, naive melodies in the same way that Nick Cave was able to in his album. Everybody who has a taste for vocal pop music should pick up this album, especially if Here Come the Warm Jets or Paris 1919 are your preferred way of digesting said genre. Sweet, simple, and heart-rendingly gorgeous, More is my album of the year.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

More Moore part 30: Spawn and Violator, part 1

After spending the twilight of the '80s and the dawn of the '90s writing captivating, dense non-genre works, the stars were right again for Alan Moore to come back home, and it was thus, when the early '90s were in full swing, our hero had at last been lured back into the capes-and-tights fold, this time by none other than the face of the comics boom himself, Image Comics' founder Todd McFarlane. Especially in the early '90s, MacFarlane must've seemed like a breath of fresh air to just about everyone else looking for an alternative to the monolithic terrible twosome of DC and Marvel, and Moore was no different in that regard; in Image he would remain for nearly the entire decade. This was a different Moore than the one we are used to, however: flipping through his Image work, the reader doesn't find the grand experiments with form and genre that made him a household name. Rather, Moore at Image was towing the party line much more than Moore the iconoclast ever did before, trying hard to make work that the type of audience who read MacFarlane's Spawn would appreciate. What we are left with is a smaller, simpler Moore, who forsakes density and literary technique for black humor and mindless '90s violence. Not that these works are bad, necessarily...they're simply something new for the Magus.

Spawn chapter 8: "In Heaven" (1993)

I've always felt like Todd MacFarlane is the Quentin Tarantino of his medium: his work is big and loud, not terribly bright, and he works best with a collaborator. Even the most rabid Spawn fan has to admit that Todd's scripts are seriously lacking and occasionally borderline moronic; apparently MacFarlane felt that way himself, and beginning with chapter eight of his (apparently still-going) saga, he called in some heavy-duty help to do the work with the writing, including Neil Gaiman (leading to a decades-long legal battle) and, of course, Alan Moore. Moore wrote three issues of the main Spawn comic, as well as a trio of spinoffs, all of which have the hallmarks of his Image period: loud, gory, blackly humorous, and a fair bit of fun, if not any great revelations.

For the uninitiated, the very-simplified and condensed story of Spawn is as follows: Al Simmons, covert government assassin, is killed by his superiors and sent to Hell. There, he makes a deal with the Devil to he returned to Earth, both to right wrongs and to see his wife again. Unbeknownst to Al, the Devil has given him a raw deal, and Simmons arrives back on Earth years after his death, horribly mutilated and turned into a Hellspawn, his memories erased. His wife has remarried and has a child, and Al, now Spawn, has a vicious demon named Violator out to bring him back down to the netherworld. Not that you need to know any of this backstory to follow Moore's plot for chapter eight, because Spawn himself barely even makes an appearance. Instead we follow the exploits of a child murderer named Mister Chill-ee, who had been killed by Spawn and is now getting a first-hand tour of Hell. The result is a '90s Image comic version of Inferno, with Chill-ee being lead by a young girl through the torments and tortures to the Eighth Circle, all oozing with buckets of '90s blood. When Chill-ee gives in to his perversions and attempts to strange the girl in her sleep, she is revealed to be the Vindicator, the brother of Violator, who wraps Chill-ee into a suit not unlike the one Spawn wears and drafts him into the army of the damned.

I have to admit that I went into this chapter fully expecting to hate it. I had a couple issues of the MacFarlane-penned Spawn when I was younger, and they were and remain absolute drivel, one of the worst offenders of the books that tried to be dark and vicious like Watchmen without any soul. "In Heaven" exceeded all my expectations, however, and was actually a surprising enjoyment. This is no great work, of course, but it's infused with the same kind of hilarity that made "D.R. & Quinch" so infectious: Moore simply knows how to tell a really good, cruel joke, and his timing is impeccable when he lets himself relax. Especially once Vindicator reveals himself and chases Chill-ee down the circles of Hell, he's calling to the man as if he's an escaped puppy who needs to come back home. It all leads to the send-off gag, Vindicator's words in caption as Chill-ee, all be-Spawned out, joins the ranks of evil:

"Like we could care less if you're covetin' your neighbor's ox or whatever/I mean, we're runnin' a business here.../...An' I tell ya for nothin', the two words carved on marble in Hell's lobby ain't "Good" or "Evil"/It's two other words, and what they say is this.../"Ca-ca happens" little buddy/"Ca-ca happens."

MacFarlane's art is uneven, I feel: he does great monsters and action scenes, but his humans, especially his females, all look the same, big-eyed and hard-bodied like musclebound Disney princesses (this is a problem occasionally shared by David Gibbons, but Dave's females are more aesthetically pleasing than Todd's). Of course, when the backdrop is Hell, this is rarely a problem, and if you can get past the woman in the vaguely Tarzan-esque outfit who looks ready to belt out a Disney number at any moment, you'll have plenty of scenes of squamous evil about, something that MacFarlane excels in. In all, Spawn chapter eight is a hundred times better than I ever could have imagined, and it shows what the admittedly-ripe Spawn mythos can do when in the hands of a capable writer. Not only that, but it set up several more short works for Moore in the Image universe, each one as batshit insane as can be. Mister Chill-ee shrinkwrapped into a Spawn fatsuit is far from the most ridiculous thing we'll see during Moore's Image tenure.

Violator (1994)

When Moore created Vindicator, he made Spawn chapter eight work as a perfect setup for his next work with Image: a three chapter short story starring Spawn's nemesis Violator, a lanky Hellbeast trapped in the body of a fat, disgusting, homeless clown. Right from page one, Moore and artists Bart Sears and Greg Capullo (who has since gone to great acclaim drawing for Batman) provide us with a sort of disgusting funhouse mirror-version of the overmuscled, grim and gritty blandness that Image and its compatriots had been supplying us for years. Violator is being hunted by a Punisher clone named The Admonisher, a man the size of a house who has muscles on his muscles and an all-consuming hatred of Teddy Roosevelt. In addition, Violator also has to deal with his own brothers, who include the Vindicator from Spawn #8 as well as Vandaizer, Vaporizer, and Vacillator, and are out to stop Violator's dragging the family name through the mud by being hunted by a human. The choicest scene comes during the requisite battle, where Violator's brothers try to eliminate the Admonisher while Violator himself, stuck in his clown form, discusses Oedipal complexes and family infighting with the head of a rotting gangster, which he's had stuck to his arm since about page three. The Admonisher himself is classic, exploding his way out of one of the brothers and shouting the most clearly parodic lines in the whole work:

"I am The Admonisher!/And I'm here to give you a darn good telling off!"

The whole thing could be a fantastic parody action movie, with some jacked-to-the-gills beefcake with just the right amount of self-awareness as The Admoniosher, and some nice ugly CGI to depict Violator and his family. The three chapters go by in a blaze of guns, viscera, and the most ludicrous dialogue this side of an overt humor comic, which Violator may be, but it certainly doesn't play its hand until you've already cracked open the book. Clearly, Moore isn't about to make any profound statements with his Image work, but damn if it isn't enjoyable still.

So, Moore's first work with Todd MacFarlane and Image ends up a very surprising success, and Moore shows that he hasn't lost the comedic chops that made his work with 2000AD such an enjoyment. Moore himself hasn't been kind to these pieces, which is too bad because they're more than enjoyable. If they made a collection like DC did of all of Moore's short work, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. The Admonisher alone is worth it...

“A talking-to! A dressing-down! Stern reproof, counsel or advice!!”

...

Up next: More Spawn!

Monday, December 2, 2013

More Moore part 29: A Small Killing

A Small Killing (1991)

When all is said and done, what could be termed Moore's second period of works, where he turned his back on the superhero tropes that made him famous and instead embraced the very idea of the human condition, represented a very brief blip in the man's oeuvre, from 1989 to 1991. I had speculated last time that the failure of Big Numbers might have had something to do with sending Moore back into the more profitable pastures of the superhero comic, but I suppose it's just as possible that he simply needed to get these stories out of his system in a relatively short span of time. Either way, the last work of this fertile, unique period is A Small Killing, a brief yet complex piece with artist Oscar Zarate on the considerably-unknown VG label. Having never even heard of it before starting this read-through, I can't even begin to tell you how impressed, how absolutely floored I was when I finished it. A Small Killing tells more in its 88 pages than Big Numbers tells in its finished 120, and has leaped up to my absolute top ten list as one of the greatest works of the medium. All on a tiny comics imprint, drawn by an artist who barely warrants two whole lines on Wikipedia.

A Small Killing is the story of English adman Tim Hole (pronounced 'Holly'), and like From Hell's tale being placed within and without the person of William Withey Gull, A Small Killing is the story of Hole's hopes, dreams, and the thing he became. Hole is the perfect picture of Thatcher's England, a product of the selfish '80s made flesh. In flashback, we see Tim transform from a young artist to a middle-aged businessman: he stabs his business associate in the back and leaves him out to dry as he jumps ship to a rival advertising firm; he cheats on his wife, impregnates his mistress, and leave her emotionally wrecked when she's worrying about whether or not to get an abortion. The flashbacks are chronologically backward, which gives the story more emotional heft: you see Tim at the beginning as a cutthroat sleaze, and it's only as time goes on that the earnest young man he once was shines through. And throughout the layers of the past is the story being told in the present: back home for the first time in years, Hole is being stalked by a young boy who seems determined to kill him. The boy gives no serious reasoning for his bloodthirst, but reason comes to those who read between the lines easily enough: he IS Tim Hole, the artist's youth and idealism, and he is out to murder the man who murdered him first, by becoming everything he once stood against.

Hole's fight against his young ideals makes A Small Killing a personal read; it is still a horror story, but it's a horror story rooted in growing up, and whether becoming an adult means that you have to sacrifice everything that you believed in. For all of his unpleasantness, we see Tim is a rounded, three-dimensional character: we see him lie to girls to impress them, we see him rage against the mouth-breathers who see him reading Lolita and assume he's up to no good, we see him masturbate ineffectually to relieve the stress of this apparition hunting him down. The scene is intimate and uncomfortable when Tim flashes back to his mistress, practically begging him to take a side regarding their unborn child, and it's even worse when Tim resolutely shirks the responsibility that is his, like we're watching a very personal argument, and we are not invited to listen in the way we are. In the end, Hole and the boy find themselves in a deep crater, where Tim once buried a jar of insects when he was young; only one of them climbs out, and it's just ambiguous enough, though a brief thought should make the survivor clear to the reader.

Oscar Zarate's art is rubbery and cartoonish, and his best panels are the ones in which Tim is surrounded by a sea of other people, small brief dialogues going on around him in every direction. The flashbacks are done with a lighter palette, pinks and robin's egg blues mingling to give it a feeling like a faded photograph. Zarate also displays a talent with framing the panels; like David Gibbons before him, he uses each panel like a camera, blocking in the shots and leading the eye effortlessly through the seas of people to the action: several times throughout the story we can follow Tim as he moves from station to station in a party of club scene, a dark-haired man among the endless throng of yellow and brown figures stretching out to infinity.

A Small Killing should resonate with all of us. Anybody who could look at themselves and realize that their past selves would not be pleased to see where they ended up, this story is for you. It's another home run from Moore in the short form, that even when he is working in epics like From Hell and Big Numbers, he can turn in this little work to get right to the heart of the human condition so effortlessly. It's likely that most people reading this have never read A Small Killing, or possibly have never even heard of it. I would recommend this work to anyone who found themselves to have given something up in exchange for money, or comfort. And much like "In Pictopia" and Big Numbers were meditations on the comics industry swallowing and smashing those trapped within its cogs, so is A Small Killing a story written for Moore as much as any of us; no doubt that in 1991 he too was feeling that he had betrayed his own vision for an easier life. It's the curse of the artist, but it speaks beyond that to everyone who's ever grown up.

And so Moore's all-too-brief second period comes to a close, with Todd Mcfarlane giving the wizened magus a new home on Image, starting a second superhero period more in line with what kids were reading in the early '90s. Will this be an embarrassment, or a surprising triumph? We'll see.

...

Best quote: "One house, still undemolished...but not ours. I wonder why they left it up? It's derelict.../Not ours, but if I entered, every toy I ever lost would be there, in the starlight and the mildew."

...

Up next: Moore and Image. Spawn and Violator

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

More Moore part 28: Big Numbers

Big Numbers (1990)

The 'second period' of Alan Moore's graphic novel career was at its high point in 1990. Done with big publishers and seemingly done with superheroes entirely, Moore began with the historical horror of From Hell before he announced Big Numbers, a work he had every intention of leaving as his masterpiece and legacy. The work was to be incredibly ambitious, even down to its formatting: twelve issues of 40 pages apiece, each cover thick cardstock, each page glossy and gorgeous. The art was to be done in an impressionistic, dreamlike style by master craftsman Bill Sienkiewicz, with figures flowing through the soft-focus backgrounds, only to jump to the fore of the panel in shocking, startling detail, each panel painstakingly drawn from exacting photographs. Chapter one was to be entirely black and white, with color slowly introduced, chapter by chapter, until chapter twelve was full of vivid, sumptuous full-color hues. And the story would be like no other; the story of a small English town disrupted by the opening of an American shopping mall, but based heavily on the theories of chaos theory as postulated by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, to show chaos theory at work in the real word as one small moment sends ripples that ends in the utter destruction of the town. Every panel would be exactingly written within Mandlebrot's theories, every moment, every facial gesture calculated and constructed. Every scene would have layers of meaning, whether it be literal, symbolic, or mathematical. Additionally, it would all be put out independently, with Moore creating the publishing imprint Mad Love made up of his friends and family, totally free from editorial meddling or suits looking at the bottom line. And Moore proved his naysayers wrong when chapter one of Big Numbers was released and sold better than one could imagine for a black and white, non-genre, self-published book. Here was irrefutable proof that a man could shoot for the stars, unburdened by a major company backing him, and could do great things. When Big Numbers was finished, it would be the premier Alan Moore title, discussed in academia. Watchmen's days were numbered.

Big Numbers totally fell apart after chapter two. Nothing has been put out since.

The story of Big Numbers is the story of a comic book tragedy, especially to hear some tell it, but more that that it is a fascinating tale of art imitating life. Everything that could go wrong, did, nearly from the beginning, and certainly after chapter one. Bill Sienkiewicz penciled chapter three and then immediately parted company with Moore, right as Mad Love collapsed under stress both personal and financial, leaving the series without an artist or a financier. Enter Kevin Eastman, co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who in 1990 was absolutely flush with new-found cash and ready to save the Greatest Comic Of All Time written by the Greatest Comic Writer Of All Time. Moore and Eastman brought on Al Columbia, one of Sienkiewicz's assistants, to do the art, and the work was back on track. The plan was to tidy up Sienkiewicz's chapter three and put it out with a Columbia-drawn chapter four on Eastman's Tundra publishing. Things were looking up!

Columbia apparently finished chapter four, but he never submitted a page to anybody, and supposedly destroyed his work on it before quitting the business almost for good. Nobody, whether it be Moore or Eastman or any artist, has touched anything from chapter five on, and chapter three was never cleaned up or released. Chapter three WAS finally made available to the public in 2009, when Moore historian Pádraig Ó Méalóid, he who wrote the excellent Miracleman behind-the-scenes Poisoned Chalice, actually found the pages on eBay and scanned and uploaded them with Moore's blessing, but this still leaves us an apparent masterwork with 3/4 of its bulk unfinished, and to hear Moore say it, never to be finished.

With all this telling the story of Big Numbers you may be noticing I have yet to get to the actual work itself. That's because, despite the hushed reverence that Moore aficionados usually give it, in the state we have it in, Big Numbers isn't much worth talking about. The 120 pages that have been made act mostly as an introduction to the enormous cast; the various strange characters who live and love in the small English town of Hampton, and the big business Americans looking to install a mall right in the middle of it. We meet young writer Christine Gathercole, who seems to act as much as the lead character as can be in an ensemble cast like this, back in her hometown after years away and thusly able to see the residents bizarre habits as an outside observer. The rest of the residents of Hampton are a pretty typical group of 'literary small-town weirdos' and as the story is dead after its third installment, they stay that way, no time yet to grow or become rounded. They're often humorous, but with the plot in the state we get it, there's not much to talk about. A lot of people give Big Numbers a lofty reverence, speaking of it in the same breath as Miracleman and Watchmen and The Killing Joke, but as it stands, I don't get it. We could wish for Big Numbers to be finished, or imagine how glorious it would be in the end (and make no mistake, it sounds like it would get very interesting indeed), but right now it's the graphic novel equivalent of watching the first 20 minutes of a movie and declaring it a work of genius (or more like the first 13 minutes, and then a rough workprint cut of the next 7 minutes). Quite literally nothing happens worth discussing, with the exception of work on the mall beginning in the last couple pages of chapter two. The one thing that I can discuss in absolutely glowing terms, however, is Bill Sienkiewicz's art, which is nearly as good as it gets. I don't hear Bill's name tossed about in the same breath as J.H. Williams III or Alex Ross, and it's too bad because his work, here especially, is absolutely stunning. Everything has a heavy, dreamlike quality to it, and Sienkiewicz shows the ability to switch between styles effortlessly, things becoming for exaggerated and cartoony for flashbacks, or violent and bloody for fantasies. Nowhere is Bill's work more accomplished than the opening scene of the first chapter: eight wordless pages juxtaposing a train ride, a nightmare, and delinquent kids throwing a rock at said train. It's a killer opening to the story, back and forth between the cool car and the horrid darkness of the nightmare, and it shows that Moore's ambition wasn't unfounded, and that Sienkiewicz was equal to the task, at least for a little while. If there's anything that people should admire in Big Numbers, it's the art, which is probably some of the absolute best Moore's ever paired with, at least from a technical standpoint. At least until Promethea.

As it stands, the story of Big Numbers the comic is far more interesting than the story within Big Numbers the comic. Pádraig Ó Méalóid actually interviewed Bill Sienkiewicz a couple years ago, and the story Bill gives for his departure, and the behind-the-scenes goings-on at Mad Love, are fascinating for the same reason that Pádraig's Poisoned Chalice are: it's a look into this bizarre work, a bit of an Icarus story where Moore wanted to tell the story to end all stories, and it came crashing down over and over, no matter what he did to right it. What is unfortunate is the repercussions that the Big Numbers fiasco had on jettisoning Moore's 'second period' likely long before it would have naturally ended otherwise. Miracleman and Swamp Thing started Alan's rise to the top of comics stardom; Watchmen and The Killing Joke gave him the impetus to make Big Numbers, a man at the absolute pinnacle of his career doing exactly what he wanted to do. When Big Numbers failed and cost him gobs of his own money, Moore was able to put out one more work that has the same distinct feel of Big Numbers and From Hell, but until possibly The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the 2000s, nothing Moore will do will have the same magnificent impact on the medium at large. Moore will never again be as important as he was in 1990. But that doesn't mean his work won't still be just as good.

...

Best quote: "Apparently, life is a fractal in Hilbert space."

"Ah well./I knew it'd turn out t'be somet'in like dat./I knew dat couldn't be right , about de bowl o'cherries."

...

Up next: Moore's final second period work, A Small Killing.

Monday, November 18, 2013

To My Twenties

To My Twenties (1945)
by Kenneth Koch

How lucky that I ran into you
When everything was possible
For my legs and arms, and with hope in my heart
And so happy to see any woman——
O woman! O my twentieth year!
Basking in you, you
Oasis from both growing and decay
Fantastic unheard of nine- or ten-year oasis
A palm tree, hey! And then another
And another——and water!
I’m still very impressed by you. Whither,
Midst falling decades, have you gone? Oh in what lucky fellow,
Unsure of himself, upset, and unemployable
For the moment in any case, do you live now?
From my window I drop a nickel
By mistake. With
You I race down to get it
But I find there on
The street instead, a good friend,
X——  N——, who says to me
Kenneth do you have a minute?
And I say yes! I am in my twenties!
I have plenty of time! In you I marry,
In you I first go to France; I make my best friends
In you, and a few enemies. I
Write a lot and am living all the time
And thinking about living. I loved to frequent you
After my teens and before my thirties.
You three together in a bar
I always preferred you because you were midmost
Most lustrous apparently strongest
Although now that I look back on you
What part have you played?
You never, ever, were stingy.
What you gave me you gave whole
But as for telling
Me how best to use it
You weren’t a genius at that.
Twenties, my soul
Is yours for the asking
You know that, if you ever come back.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sound'a'Roundus: Daniel Newheiser's Top 13 Albums

Today we look at the baker's dozen (plus two) by Daniel Newheiser, a smooth character whom I still don't know why he would associate with a guy like me, but people make strange choices in their life, and who am I to judge? Mosey on down to Daniel's website to hear some really well-done tunes, or his Youtube page to see our hero frolicking with people in penguin suits. Strange life choices, as I said. As per Daniel's request, this list is set up a little differently than usual, so enjoy a straightforward #1 to #15, without further ado...

...

I’ve dreamt of writing this article for 15 years.



I've wanted to be a musician my whole life and since I wasn't a part of a community of musicians growing up, I learned about music from lists just like this one. My parents weren’t very into records and I didn't have a group of friends that wanted to discuss music, so my musical education was dedicated to reading lists and reviews of albums on allmusic.com and rocklist.uk.



Just like how everyone has a secret acceptance speech in case they win an Academy Award, I spent many hours contemplating what I would say when I was asked to weigh in from my lofty perch of experience.



I imagined this would be a life affirming experience that would give a sense of importance and legitimacy to my life's work.



Unfortunately, as I write this, I realize that this won't really be the case for a couple of reasons:



1. No one really cares.



When I was reading the Rolling Stone list of top 500 albums and carefully studying every review, I was completely engrossed in the education I was receiving. Unconsciously, when I was imagining myself putting together a list like this, I was imagining a hoard of adoring fans that would be lapping up my opinions just like I did from my heroes.



Unfortunately, on the internet, opinions are more common than people wanting to hear them. Anyone can read thousands of lists like this one from people famous or obscure. Because of this, few people read these lists, while many are creating them.



I barely read my friend Chris Bollweg's list and we've been friends for 8 years and bandmates for just as long. My chances of anyone caring about these words are pretty slim.



2. I feel like a magician revealing his tricks.



Trent Reznor, Ludwig Beethoven, and Robert Johnson taught me about the importance of mystery in music. Everyone loves music that seems like it came direct from the ether. Just like a magician's audience, they love talking about how the trick is done, but they're even more pleased when they discover they can’t.



No one wants to feel like they could have written their favorite song. They want to feel like it was supernatural intervention that created a work of perfect art.



I think everyone who is into music has experienced being a fan of a band or a song until they discover how derivative the music is. For example, if I was 10 years old and wasn't familiar with the history of popular music, I would be astounded by the quality of the One Direction song "You Don't Know You're Beautiful." It's got a great guitar riff, great idea for a song, great production, etc. If they were the first group to come up with all those elements they would be a band as great as The Beatles.



However, the song is so obviously derivative, it causes anyone with even a passing knowledge of popular music to roll their eyes when they hear it.



I remember the first time I heard “YDKYB”, I stopped in my tracks and said to the person next to me, "...they're not really going to just rip off the 'Louie Louie' riff like that are they?"



They did.



I mean seriously:



What makes this exercise really scary is when it tarnishes your favorite songs:  
 



It’s a common experience for 16-year boys across America to realize that Led Zeppelin stole a lot of their lyrics from old blues songs. Contempt soon follows.



I have a degree in music from one of the best music schools in the world (USC) and have devoted my life to studying great musicians and I can tell you: there are no real magicians in music.



Everyone from Mozart to Jimi Hendrix has a formula. I could take any musician in history and play you four songs that influenced them and you would say, "Oh. That's how they came up with that."



Fortunately for Jimi and Wolfgang, the influences they were drawing from are obscure enough that people don't know them. But One Direction isn’t so lucky.



Amateur poets borrow; mature poets steal” -T. S. Elliot



My point is, if I give the public the naked elements of my influences, I'm hurting my chances of astounding people.



I've been advised by many famous musicians (David Foster et al) and my teachers to not even admit that magic doesn't take place. It hurts the cause of all artists and hurts the public.



However, I have an answer to each problem:



1. I know at least Ivan (and my fantastic A+ brother, Mark) will read this so it gives me some gratification to know my choices are appreciated by at least two people.



2. Since very few will read this I don't think there's much danger in revealing my secrets. There are thousands of books explaining how magic tricks work, but most people don't go to the effort to find the answers even when they're curious, so I think I’ll be ok.



So I shall continue.



Here's my list:



1. Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile 

My concept of perfect music. I cried the hardest I have ever cried in my life the first time I heard this album. For 6 years I would only listen to this album once every three months because it was so precious to me. It felt like going into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and I didn’t want to abuse the privilege.



It's all in there. Perfect songwriting, perfect production, perfect vocals, perfect overall concept of the album.



2. Jon Foreman - Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall


When I first heard this I cried for a different reason: Someone had done what I had been dreaming for years of doing before me. Similar to above. Absolute perfection.



3. Nickel Creek - Why Should the Fire Die?


This could have, and should have been the biggest album in the world. This album should have impacted the culture as much as Adele's 21.



Unfortunately, they had already been labeled as a "bluegrass" band by their label, the public, and the music industry so this album never reached the audience it deserved. As a bluegrass album it disappoints as much as fans of Inglourious Basterds would be disappointed by Shindler's List.



If I had any power I would re-release this album today and watch it conquer the world.



4. Drive by Truckers - Decoration Day
(Standing in for Daniel's preferred choice, Deeper In)


An astounding collection of songs perfectly performed. I have yet to play a song from this album to someone and not have their jaw hit the floor. Just one song from this album would be worth spending your whole life creating.




5. Beach Boys - Pet Sounds



It's Pet Sounds. Come on. Everyone knows it’s the best.



The production alone, or the songwriting alone would deserve a place on this list. The combination of the two is amazing.




6. Big L - Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous


This is the best rap album you haven't heard.

7. Clara Ward - Meetin' Tonight


I wish I could make people go bananas like she could. Perfect gospel singing.




8. George Strait - Complete Discography


My all time favorite musician. I put this on here without a specific album because they're all excellent. I can put all 32 albums on shuffle and not skip a song until the playlist runs out. I think this is the highest aspiration for a musician.



He’s the person I'd most like to talk to from history. I’d rather have 15 minutes with him than any person living or dead.



9. Rage Against the Machine - First three albums (Favorite Track: Know your enemy)


The same as George Strait: one long barrage of awesome.



Among the most amazing things for me about Rage, is that no one really followed them stylistically. They were extremely popular and "rap rock" became a major style in music, but no band that I’m aware of sounds anything close to them, even today. Very rare for such a popular band.




10. Taylor Swift - Fearless


If you don't like this record it's probably because you think of it as a country record or as a bubblegum record. Don't do that.



11. The Wonder Years - The Upsides (Favorite Track: All my Friends are in Bar Bands)



My current all time favorite band. If I had a wish today, it would be to open up for them on tour this fall. (Soupy, if you're reading this: call me.)



12. Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream
(Bizarrely, this song does not appear to be available in an album version in Youtube. So here it is live.)
 

A magical experience. The best loud record ever recorded.




13. Ry Cooder - Into the Purple Valley


Ry Cooder is an astounding musician. I think he has the best ears in music. We should be best friends.




14. Minor Threat - Minor Threat



This is on here not so much for the actual record (which is fantastic) but for all that it represents. Nothing is quite like being 14 and feeling like you're part of something bigger than yourself. Minor threat gave me that.




15. Great Big Sea - Turn


The first band that was ever my favorite band. I still listen to these songs and wonder why I've ever tried to learn about any other kind of music. I should have just tried to make music exactly like this.



As I get to the end of this, I'm realizing how many important albums I'm leaving out (The Franco Corelli recording of Gounod's Faust, anything by Charlie Parker, Jorge Ben's Afrobrazil) but I think this list mostly represents who I really am, which for me was the goal of this exercise.



Thank you for reading this. I hope it has been enjoyable, and I hope that someday an album by Daniel Newheiser will make your list and mine.



Thank you,



Daniel

...





Dig on Daniel's own "All I'm Missing is You" and see you soon for more of whatever it is you people read this stuff for.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More Moore part 27: In Pictopia

"In Pictopia" (1986)

I would say that, when you talk to a comics layperson about the works of Alan Moore, the prevailing thought for the uninitiated is that Mr. Moore does comics which deconstruct superhero stories. Out of what can be termed his 'major works,' two of the most read, that being Watchmen and Miracleman (as it is now apparently officially called) deal explicitly with taking the basic superhero comic archetype and turning it on its head, especially in adding elements of fantastic realism, a move which has served to change the genre irrevocably since their publication. Surprisingly, Moore actually produced a third work in the superhero deconstructionist genre, one which retains many of the tricks he used in Watchmen and Miracleman while bringing its own sensibilities to the game. The most likely reason why "In Pictopia" isn't vaunted in the same pantheon as Moore's other superhero work is a question of length and availability: unlike the grand novels of the other work, "In Pictopia" is among Moore's shortest pieces at a paltry thirteen pages, and has only been reissued as part of a book of Moore ephemera, available originally in a Fantagraphics benefit book entitled Anything Goes. And yet, we have already seen how well Moore takes to the short story genre, and "In Pictopia" is no different, a by-turns blackly humorous and darkly depressing work which examines the state of comics at the end of the '80s, is surprisingly prophetic in its words. Watchmen may have revolutionized the genre by offering up a high-profile example of the art form in its most nuanced, intellectual, and dense, but it is "In Pictopia" where Moore seems to realize that, even as he is altering the comic landscape, sacrifices will be made.

The protagonist of "In Pictopia" is Nocturno the Necromancer, a down-on-his-luck conjuror and riff on Mandrake the Magician, '30s comic strip character. As he will do over a decade later in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore packs "In Pictopia" with references, in this case of older strip comics. Nocturno's next-door neighbor is Sammy Sleepyhead, a Little Nemo analogue who keeps the Necromancer up all night by falling out of bed and shouting in his sleep, while downstairs a Blondie knockoff named Red prostitutes herself to a Popeye parody while her husband Deadwood is away. Such is the life in the Prince Features tenement block, while comic strip characters of days past struggle to make ends meet in an environment that has forgotten about them. Nocturno does very little throughout "In Pictopia's" thirteen pages, acting more as a tour guide for the reader to see the squalor of life in the funny pages. Of course, just like any good metropolis, there's an income disparity, as Nocturno fantasizes about life on the other side:

“I used to dream about moving to the color section uptown, just for a few dawns and sunsets, but I know it’ll never happen. Only superheroes can afford to live in color.”

Solace from the endless drudgery of the Prince Features life is found in Funnytown, there the kiddie comic animal people live, a quarter stuck in the '50s where there is "No urban violence that isn't in some way amusing" that soon has Nocturno shaking his funk, if only temporarily. Past Funnytown he finds the edge of the city, a chain-link fence with a placeless industrial darkness beyond. It is at this fence we are introduced to Flexible Flynn, a Plastic-Man analogue and the only superhero willing to to seen consorting with the bums from the strip comics. Flynn speaks to Nocturno of strange changes happening in the city, of characters vanishing without a trace, and of dark new superheroes appearing, superior and apathetic, roaming in gangs. Pictopia is changing, becoming bleaker and more fierce, and Flynn doesn't know what role he or Nocturno or anyone will have in the coming world.

Heading home after the conversation with Flynn, Nocturno finds one of these gangs of new heroes beating a resident of Funnytown. The heroes, bored of fighting crime much like the new heroes of somewhat similarly-themed Kingdom Come, have turned to casual, banal violence to pass the time, and since Funnytown residents pop back from injury quickly and easily, they have taken to selling their bodies for violence for a few extra dollars. The whole scene is disturbing and uncomfortable, the Funnytown character literally prostituting himself to be beaten mercilessly, and much praise must be given to the colorist Eric Vincent, who paints the Prince and Funnytown characters in muted, faded newspaper colors while the superheroes are bright and vibrant. Back at the tenement, desperate for human interaction, Nocturno attempts to buy Red's services, only to find her being violently accosted by a pair of helmeted thugs not unlike Judge Dredd from 2000AD. Reports are given of political caricatures of Nixon and Hitler running for office in a dead heat, while Nocturno hunts out Flynn again, the voice of reason and the only person who can make sense of things while the new heroes seem to be overtaking Pictopia totally. Nocturno finds Flynn in a crowd, but the man that turns to face him is someone different: rippling muscles, tight suit, dog collar, face twisted into a grimace. This is Flexible Flynn, grim and dark and updated for the '80s.

Flynn has been replaced.

Nocturno has nowhere left to go. He ends up in Funnytown only to find it razed, workers bulldozing the land. When Nocturno inquires about what happened to the residents, one of the workers gives it to him straight:

"People? There weren’t no people livin’ out here. Just some stray dogs and stuff. They’ve been painlessly destroyed./Take my advice, buddy, an’ keep out of it. This city’s changing, and some things just don’t fit the continuity no more."

And we are left with Nocturno at the perimeter fence, his world fallen apart, while the encroaching blackness comes closer.

Funny, huh?

But is is funny, in a way, and that is mostly thanks to the art by Donald Simpson. Simpson's art is lumpy and soft and his characters, especially Flynn pre-reboot, look like they belong in an issue of MAD, and considering Moore's love of Harvey Kurtzman, this is likely intentional. While "In Pictopia" certainly has a malaise of desolation around its thirteen pages, the fact that the work is populated by pastiche characters means there is a lot of opportunity for humor. Moore and Simpson's parodies of Popeye, and the Katzenjammer Kids, and Dick Tracy are funny because they're characters we recognize being given a parodic treatment. It's funny to put characters we know into unusual situations, even if they're violent or turning tricks in an alley. Or hell, maybe I'm just a monster.

"In Pictopia" is a wonderful work, another killer short story that anticipated the next decade with an impressive accuracy. I have read people say that it's dated, that it blew the grim and gritty wave of comics out of proportion, that it treats as a terminal disease what eventually became simply a passing illness. But even if the bleakness of the '80s and '90s didn't kill nostalgia forever, it kept them in the dark for a long time, and "In Pictopia" is at least an affirmation of such. If you're curious to see the comic medium going through throes of change in the mid to late '80s, "In Pictopia" could be thought of as ground zero, a place where the old was unceremoniously ousted and the new began to take up residence, with only the author himself, the one who began the revolution initially, to mourn the dead. Now we'll just have to wait and see if Moore remembers his own lessons when he starts penning Spawn stories for Image about a decade after "Pictopia" was written...

...

Best quote: "I've been standing here ever since, just watching the horizon with its churning darkness; its smoldering, sulphurous light./It's not like a stormfront at all, really. It's more like a vast, creeping, industrial mass, wreathed in factory smoke and lit only by furnaces./Sometimes, it looks as if it's getting closer.../...But that may be an illusion, born of the distance."

...

Up next: Moore's lost work. Big Numbers