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