Saturday, December 27, 2014

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

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


10. Ergo Phizmiz - The Peacock

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

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

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

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

6. Jenny Hval & Susanna - Meshes of Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 5, 2014

Lens of Unrectified Night

Lens of Unrectified Night: God and Man in Outer Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Rock Song of J. Alfred Pruflove: Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Then: I think I was introduced to this by DJ Candice Cameron of Freestyle Kill. Despite the fact that it's treated as gospel by many in the 'indie' community, it took me a long time to get into...I was more into Jeff Mangum's first album, On Avery Island, and to this day I'm still a much bigger Olivia Tremor Control fan. But grow on me it did, and I felt that Mangum was the Dylan to The Beach Boys of Olivia Tremor Control, or The Beatles of The Apples in Stereo.

Now That's not to say that people don't overblow this one. I hear people having weird religious experiences listening to Aeroplane, and bursting into uncontrollable tears. No wonder the guy got weirded out by his fanbase and quit soon after its release. For being so revered, Aeroplane actually has a fair bit of filler on it, as well: after a rock-solid first four songs, the album gets lazy, with numerous needless instrumentals or fluff to pad out the lackluster second half, which is surprising since the best song the man ever wrote wasn't included on ANY of his albums. Aeroplane redeems itself with the killer 'Oh Comely' and the astoundingly gorgeous 'Two-Headed Boy Part II' which really is one of the saddest songs I've ever heard, but I still suspect that most peoples obsessions come from the album''s first third.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Rock Song of J. Alfred Pruflove: Marilyn Manson

Marilyn Manson: Portrait of an American Family

Then: I'm slightly ashamed to admit it, but I was a huge Marilyn Manson fan for a while. I went and saw him live in 1998, the show at the Great Western Forum where he twisted his ankle and stopped the show after 6 songs, I dubbed my own tapes with all the tracks from The Spooky Kids, the original incarnation of the group. I lost interest around the new millennium, but Marilyn's first three albums were huge for me for a time.

Now: After giving this another spin, I'm surprised that Trent Reznor didn't produce more guitar-oriented rock albums, because he's really quite good at it. The production on Portrait is crystal-clean, the bass and guitar are big and meaty, and it's an anomaly in both Reznor and Manson's respective oeuvre that was never really visited again; both band and producer abandoned guitar rock for the more well-known industrial of "Closer" and "The Beautiful People" pretty soon after. Marilyn displays a humor on this first album that he pretty much gave up on after this as well; everything from Antichrist Superstar on is dour and humorless, whereas buried among the swearing and purposely shocking turns of phrase on Portrait, he allows himself to have a little fun. If you just want a good beefy mid '90s slice of rock, you could do worse than Portrait of an American Family. Way, way worse.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Rock Song of J. Alfred Pruflove: LCD Soundsystem

LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver

Then: This was right at the tail end of my flirtation with 'college rock' before I discovered Foetus and things really got interesting. I had been a big fan of James Murphy, aka LCD Soundsystem, from his first album, which was typical 2004 synth-driven indie rock blended with an awareness of weird '70s fringe stuff, a la Can, Brian Eno, This Heat, etc. I snatched up Sound of Silver pretty quickly and was impressed at how much more mature it was; not really any party anthems like 'Daft Punk is Playing at My House' and more longform, squelchy meditations of how much it sucks becoming old and miserable, probably the closest thing to a modern Talking Heads album as we're likely to get.

Now: James Murphy is a pretty bad singer, but unlike most of the others I've checked out since starting this, he's a really excellent lyricist. His flat, limited range almost works to enhance his poetry, which is beautifully despondent and still makes me feel rushes of emotion, especially the jaw-dropping one-two punch of 'Someone Great' and 'All my Friends' in the middle of the album, which so captures the essence of being a male approaching your 30s and realizing that things aren't going to work out the way everyone had told you they would growing up. He has a line in 'All my Friends', "We set the controls for the heart of the sun/One of the ways that we show our age" which is so short and so simple and yet so affecting, as great poetry tends to be. The album isn't perfect, there's a slump after track 6 (the title track is distressingly dull) but Sound of Silver is impressively one-of-a-kind.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Rock Song of J. Alfred Pruflove: The Sisters of Mercy

The Sisters of Mercy: Floodland

Then: I think it was around 10th grade that I started abandoning Tool and Korn and all that crap, and for about a year I really got into 80s goth type stuff, mostly through my previous association with Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. I picked up all the essentials: Disintegration, Violator, and of course Floodland. It was never my favorite of the group (I was a big Depeche Mode guy) but 'Lucretia My Reflection' was a stalwart on the mixtapes I had in my car when i first got my license.

Now: Listening to the album after a long time away, it really rides so strongly on the good graces of its three singles: 'This Corrosion', 'Dominion/Mother Russia', and the aforementioned 'Lucretia My Reflection'. All three songs remain astounding, and show that Andrew Eldritch could write a killer hook when he wanted to (to say nothing of Jim Steinman's production, which is bombastic, ridiculous, and totally awesome). Sadly, he doesn't show the same panache for the rest of the album as he does for its singles, and honestly the rest of Floodland is actually kind of boring, which is always the most egregious offense when you're creating art. Still, if you could cut Floodland down to the singles, it would be a nifty little EP (and a fairly beefy one too, considering that two of the singles cracked 7 minutes).

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Rock Song of J. Alfred Pruflove: The Fiery Furnaces

The Fiery Furnaces: Blueberry Boat

Then: Another album I was absolutely blown away by in 2004. I had the Furnaces' first album, which was a rad but inessential collection of White Stripes-style stripped down rock, and when I first heard Blueberry Boat's 10-minute long, elliptical opener, "Quay Cur," I really thought I had picked up the wrong disc. The feeling got even stronger when I saw them live, a show where they distilled down both their albums into a single 45-minute long song. This was my absolute favorite album for years.

Now: Damn if Blueberry Boat isn't just as solid and essential as it was 10 years ago. The Furnaces' songwriter/lyricist/musical kaleidoscope Matthew Friedberger strikes that rare balance between melodic and experimental, and he does it in such a way that the album's several 8-minute-plus songs never wear out their welcome. Friedberger has to be one of the cleverest musicians around, as well, which makes his apparent disappearance since 2008 or so a tragedy. His lyrics are absolutely sharp, an extension of Pete Townshend's rock opera work, and the music is a melange of The Residents' Not Available, early Psychic TV, and the Friedberger siblings' own, strange take on pop music. Blueberry Boat is no longer on my favorite albums list, but it's most certainly an album everybody should hear at least once.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Rock Song of J. Alfred Pruflove: Animal Collective

Animal Collective: Sung Tongs

Then: This was absolutely mind-blowing around 2004. I had never heard anything quite like Animal Collective's Sung Tongs, which was sort of experimental folk music, lots of weird droning acoustic guitars and bizarre vocal affectations. I was absolutely blown away and tried repeatedly to make an album that was basically a big ol' rip-off of it (I think we were going to call is NUJV). I remember going to see them live and describing them to a guy in line who was only there for the headliner (Black Dice, I think?) as "Can with acoustic guitars." The rest of their records sounded absolutely nothing like this one, and for the most part I gave up on the Collective after about 2005, but there was a year or so when this was my life.

Now: Ehh...Sung Tongs is okay, but nowhere near as good as I remember. Maybe it's just because I've discovered Comus and The Incredible String Band since, but their 'unsettling acoustic' schtick doesn't feel nearly as fresh as it did at the time...hell, singer Avey Tare even sounds like the dude from Comus. Speaking of which, Jesus Christ, the lyrics on this album are straight-up awful, some of the most mind-numbing poetry I've ever heard. If you ever needed proof that doing drugs makes you an absolutely atrocious poet, give a couple tracks from Sung Tongs a spin (or, as always, Kemialliset Ystävät, which is so bad that I have to believe is intentional). The last couple A Screaming Comes Across the Sky albums were fairly psychedelic folk influenced, so Sung Tongs remains an album that affected my music, but these days I look at it more like a record that got me to find records from OTHER bands that are, for lack of a better word, much better.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Rock Song of J. Alfred Pruflove: The Shins


The Shins: Chutes too Narrow

Then: I initially discovered The Shins after seeing them headlining a show The Fiery Furnaces opened soon after this record came out. I dug Chutes too Narrow but I don't think I paid any mind to their first album, which I've completely forgotten the name to. I remember being very impressed that I could fit both albums on a single CD, though.

Now: Not bad! The album is really stripped down, acoustic guitar-based, catchy pop music, and James Mercer's singing voice doesn't fall into the insufferably cutesy trap a lot of 'indie' singers fall prey too. It has an impressive string of really good songs in a row, from the first to the eighth, and considering the album is only ten songs long, that's not bad at all. If you want some harmless, Beatle-influenced pop music, you could do a lot worse. They weren't that good live though, sadly.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Rock Song of J. Alfred Pruflove: Unwound


Unwound: The Future of What

Then: There was a time around 2000 of so, when Unwound was on the verge of splitting up, that they were my favorite band. They took Nirvana and Sonic Youth, two of my favorite bands growing up, and made them more noisy, more vicious, and more feedback-laden. Since I didn't know how to properly play guitar, I looked at Justin Trosper's feedback and saw the soul of elegance. It's no surprise that most of my attempts at bands then were Unwound/early Sonic Youth-style washes of sound. I guess that's still kinda what I do, really.

Now: Hm...it's true that on relistening to the record, Unwound has struck a pretty great balance between Nirvana's punkiness and Sonic Youth's noise, but...I dunno. All the songs on The Future of What sort of sound the same, to be honest, and while Justin Trosper could conjure up some absolutely wicked noise with his plexiglass guitar, his lyrics are pretty damn embarrassing, juvenile poetry, which is something I'm fearing I'll be saying a lot during this exercise. As-is, The Future of What could be good in very small doses, but even its meager 30-minute running time was too much.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Introducing the Rock Song of J. Alfred Pruflove

Yep, I'm deep in my studies again, so I'm putting the usual halt to More Moore, though if anyone wants to talk Dostoevsky with somebody, I'm their man. So that the blog doesn't get stuck for months without any updates, I've devised something I can do that requires little work: I had a pretty different musical palette in the early 2000s, with a lot of bands that could be referred to these days as, I guess, 'indie'. On the way to school, I figured I'd pop in an album from my late-teenhood and do a little writeup to see how well it holds up now that I'm older and, I hope, wiser. I better be wiser, it's sure costing me a lot of money.

Oh, and I set up a rarely-updated Tumblr as well, if you feel the interest in following it. I'm just putting up paintings of beautiful women with it, at the moment.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

More Moore, part 34: WildC.A.T.S. book I

WildC.A.T.s book I: Homecoming (1995)

And at last we come to WildC.A.T.s, probably the closest thing to a 'crown jewel' in Moore's Image canon, and certainly the book that he worked the longest and hardest on during his tenure with the company. WildC.A.T.s is the creation of Jim Lee, now mostly known as the Tweedledee to Dan DiDio's Tweedledum as co-publishers of DC's New 52 reboot. Stop me if you've heard this one before: Lee is a fantastic artist (his pencilwork was the only thing that elevated All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder out of the embarrassing shlock that Frank Miller's prose otherwise gave it) who sadly had no ability in writing his own scripts, so he created a new IP with Image comics that eventually had Alan Moore come on-board and give the work some much-needed depth. Much like Moore's work on Spawn, Moore and Lee barely worked together at all, and WildC.A.T.s quickly took on a revolving door of artists that gave the work a frustratingly inconsistent quality. And, like his work with Spawn, Moore's work on WildC.A.T.s is surprisingly well-done, if nothing ground-breaking.

WildC.A.T.s, as Jim Lee first envisioned it, is basically just the Image take on X-Men, which Lee had worked on during his time at Marvel. Like Professor Xavier's students, the Wild Covert Action Team is a group of young superheroes, each with a signature power or ability, like sexy ninja-assassin Zealot (nothing at all like Psylocke, of course) empathetic robot Spartan, and beefy purple Maul, yet another wisecracker in the Thing style. The only real difference brought in by Lee and original writer Brandon Choi is that THIS close-knit group of superpowered young adults led by a rich, older telepath (Lord Emp, in this case) is that the C.A.T.s aren't mutants, they're aliens! The team are all Kherubim, an alien race locked into an eternal war with rival aliens the Daemonites. That groan that you just heard upon reading those names came from yourself, and thusly you can see why Moore was brought in to give the script a little depth.

Just before Moore's first chapter, the C.A.T.s are splintered, and much like Gail Simone would do in Secret Six, Moore creates two WildC.A.T.s teams; While Emp takes most of the members back to the planet Khera to find out just what the hell is going on, another sexy ninja-assassin named Savant and the Superman-esque Mister Majestic found a new team back on Earth to combat criminal organizations. Honestly, the second team gets up to very little during the course of Homecoming; they recruit punk cyborg Ladytron and persuasive Tao and cause some trouble among Mafia organizations, including what looks like Liefeld-era Deadpool. The Earth chapters are entertaining but inconsequential, at least at this juncture; the best moment is where they crash a robot wake for a recently-deactivated guardbot:

"Though known to all the world as H.A.R.M., his close friends called him Chuck. Born Charles Sweeney in Cleveland, 1946, he had one childish dream/He wanted to weigh fifteen hundred pounds with ground-to-air bazookas on his shoulders."

The real meat of Homecoming, however, is with the team on Khera. Moore's big twist is that the Kherubim/Daemonite war is over, long over. The Daemonites lost, and Earth was so remote that neither side bothered to tell the soldiers on the ground. Khera, flush with its victory, is in a millennia-long decadence, and both Emp and Zealot are quickly and easily seduced with the promises of endless power that Khera's two political parties offer them. The other members are treated like garbage, especially half-Daemonite Voodoo and Maul, whose Titanthrope heritage marginalizes him rapidly: as another Titanthrope tells it, their race are the true Kherans, who were subjugated and enslaved by the Kherubim and who now make up the lower-class workforce for their rich masters. The plot jumps around as thus: from Emp and Zealot in glorious luxury, to the new C.A.T.s on Earth, to the rest of the C.A.T.s on Khera trying to unravel a conspiracy to use both Emp and Zealot as martyrs to further political causes.

Homecoming is far from perfect; like most Image work, a lot of the issue is in the art. The original plan before the penciller merry-go-round was for Moore to work with Travis Charest, but even that wouldn't have made the work much better, it's simply an issue with the style in the early to mid '90s. If you can get past the art, Moore does some impressive worldbuilding with Khera, and the glittering facade hiding the rot within is an impressive approximation to an alien version of the late Roman Empire. The second team is slower getting out of the gate, but Moore still has another book to go. Homecoming is really quite good, especially for Image-era Moore, and he makes the most of giving an alien world some serious political depth.

...

Up next: The cats are still wild in the second half of Moore's WildC.A.T.s.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

More Moore part 33: 1963

1963 (1993)

If there is a single irrefutable fact out there regarding Alan Moore, one that can be stated beyond any reasonable doubt, it is that, within his work at least, the man is indebted to the memories of his childhood. His first major work, Marvelman, was a wildly successful attempt to reboot a forgotten Silver Age superhero, and nearly everything since, whether the Tales From the Crypt EC horror of Swamp Thing or the strip work of "In Pictopia," has had at least one foot in the comic work of yesteryear that Moore grew up on, a fact that continues today. In 1993 Moore, along with several of his go-to artists like Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette, Dave Gibbons, and John Totelben, dove headfirst into the nostalgia well, and came out with 1963 simultaneously a parody of, and a love letter to, early '60s Marvel Comics work. The team produced six issues before the politics at Image seemed to kill the whole project, and this 1963 is as much an unfinished work as Big Numbers, and hearing the story from Steve Bissette, who seems to have had a falling-out with Moore around the end of the work's run, it will never be completed. But speaking as someone who took in 1963 and enjoyed it much more than expected, I can say that its unfinished state is likely a good thing.

I can only imagine how bizarre 1963 must have been to the average consumer when it debuted in 1993 on Image Comics, home of Spawn, Violator, Savage Dragon, and all the other hyper-muscled, grim-past meatheads who grew like a fungus in the '90s. The parody is spot-on; the colors, courtesy of Marvin Kilroy, are bold and flat, they pop off the page, instantly differentiating themselves from the standard browns and greys of the time. Veitch and Bissette do their best Steve Ditko/Jack Kirby impressions throughout, and Moore seems born into the role of the obnoxiously alliterative Stan Lee pastiche 'Affable Al'. Each chapter is a different comic in the fictional Image world of 1963, with the actual 1963 title superimposed over the Image logo in the corner of the cover. We're got "Mystery Incorporated" as a pastiche of Fantastic Four, "The Fury" is The Amazing Spider-Man, "USA - Ultimate Special Agent" is Captain America, "The Unbelievable N-Man" is The Incredible Hulk, and "Horus, Lord of Light" is The Mighty Thor. Naturally, chapter six is the Avengers pastiche "The Tomorrow Syndicate," which I'll talk of in more detail. With the first five chapters, what you see is what you get; I find Silver Age comics entirely endearing, goofy fun, and you'll get that in spades in the pages of 1963. The Fury is a dopey teen who has to keep his secret identity from his mom, just like Peter Parker and Aunt May; Horus sheds his civilian guise as professor of Egyptology to go on mystic adventures and foil his evil brother Set, etc. etc. etc. You could say that this is the worst Alan Moore comic because it brings absolutely nothing to the table, but you get the same enjoyment out of it that you do reading Jerry Siegel's old Silver Age Bizarro comics. In that way, it's the perfect cool-down after reading, say, From Hell. All of the behind-the-scenes stuff, the fake ads and the letters pages, are hilarious, they run the gamut to "Own a nuclear sub!" ("Big enough to scare NATO for 30 years!") to the most stereotypical comic fan nitpicking, as well as a letter written by Neil Gaiman taking Affable Al to task for his portrayal of the English. More cynical readers (which would likely be most of them, for this work) will appreciate the none-too-subtle representing Al/Stan Lee as as a slave-driver who takes complete credit for the works, shoving the arists off to the side, as detailed in his book "How I Created Everything All By Myself and Why I Am Great." Jack Kirby would approve.

So what about that chapter six? In its final moments, "The Tomorrow Syndicate in: From Here to Alternity!" shows the direction 1963 was headed when The Tomorrow Syndicate surf through a myriad of differing realities and end up face-to-face with Rob Liefeld creation Shaft in the dark and mysterious world of 1993. Next up, so the plan was to go, was an 80-page annual illustrated by Jim Lee, in which the '63 Image pastiches meet the '93 Image characters and presumably some sort of evil would be combated. We'll never know, because Shaft's ugly mug is the last thing we see in the last chapter published.

So that's 1963 and unlike Miracleman or Big Numbers, few tears are shed from the unfinished nature of the work. Is it weak for Alan Moore? Yeah, kinda. It begins and ends with its satire, so if you're not into satires, or not into Silver Age work, there is absolutely nothing within its pages for you. If you enjoy a bit of Silver Age goofiness though, give it a spin; the chapters are easy to find, dirt cheap, and Silver Age comics are the medium's comfort food: good brainless fun. It's better than Blood Feud, at least.

...

Up next: Moore Image!. WildC.A.T.S.

...

Friday, June 27, 2014

More Moore part 32: Spawn and Violator part 3

Violator vs. Badrock (1995)

By the mid '90s, Alan Moore had demonstrated with his work with Image that, while in no danger of unseating his previously-written Greatest Comics of All Time, he could still imbue a grim'n'gritty, stereotypical '90s work with enough heart and black humor to make it surprisingly enjoyable. While Blood Feud collapsed into a mess of bulging muscles, ocher blood, and whiny cliches, the Violator miniseries was not only surprisingly good, but endearingly good, the stereotypical grimdark Image brand blended with a Looney Tunes slapstick humor that made this reader hope there was a collection of Moore's Image work on the market so I could have it all bound together on my shelf. More fool I.

So that brings us to the last of Moore's Spawn work...for now. Violator vs. Badrock is an in-between of his other two major Image works; it doesn't tow the company line like Blood Feud, but it isn't as madcap and goofy as Violator. I still say that there's nobody who writes the titular Violator as well as Alan Moore, somewhat like a homicidal Curly Howard, so any story in which he makes an appearance is bound to be good for a few laughs, at least. As it says on the cover, Violator vs. Badrock pairs the Violator with Youngblood member Badrock, a man who is both bad, and made of rock. He's about as transparent of a caricature of The Thing from Fantastic Four as can be had, so he functions as the gruff, sarcastic comic relief whenever Violator is off-screen. The plot sees Violator captured by the Whiteside-Parsons Research Institute, with a plan to use him as a power source to find a path down to Hell. Badrock is on-hand as security for this most delicate of operations, which unsurprisingly goes to Hell pretty quickly, pun intended. The first two chapters of this four chapter work are absolutely awful, and I had the lowest of expectations as I read through them. The art is by Brian Denham, whose other work seems to be mostly an X-Files one-shot, and is is shocking in its banality. Clearly by 1995, the typical '90s look had become so co-opted and mainstream that what few edges it had were hammered flat, with everyone looking inoffensive and bland, while still being gory and sexist. The main antagonist in the first half of the work is the angel Celestine, who looks ludicrous in her rugged battle-thong and nipple-obscuring strips of leather, and by the end of chapter two, I was ready to write off the work as the nadir of Alan Moore's work, period.

Luckily, the second half of the work was there to inject the work with some needed life. With Celestine's violent, disgusting death, the whole of the Institute is transported to Hell, where Moore gets to play around more with his Infernal mythology, as he did back in "In Heaven", as well as a re-introduction to Violator's murderous, moronic brothers from the Violator miniseries (sadly, no appearances from The Admonisher, though he is mentioned a couple times). All of the work's best lines come from this second half, as Badrock has to keep everyone at the Institution together while avoiding the denizens of Hell that want to fillet them. Denham's art is still immensely boring, but with some more interesting locales to illustrate, it could easily be worse. Both Badrock and Violator gets their chance to humiliate the Phlebiac Brothers, with Violator and his brothers bickering recalling the best moments of Violator, until at last Celestine's dying powers are snuffed out and the institute returns to Earth.

And that's it. Never before have I seen a work that I can characterize as too long and too short at the same time, but Violator vs. Badrock pulls it off with aplomb. Moore has done worse, of course, but the best I can say about V vs. B is that, after the first half, it's charmingly inoffensive, which are strong words to say in a story about a rock man trapped in Hell. The first half, with Badrock battling Celestine, is atrocious, however, and if you wonder why comics were in such a sorry state in the mid '90s, both Blood Feud and the first half of Violator vs. Badrock show that even Alan Moore wasn't immune to the siren call of this embarrassing era. Maybe I will skip on that theoretical collection after all.

...

Best quote: "If I may make a further observation, Fon-spa, you'll note it is an attractive human female we are pursuing. Why never a man? Or even a less stereotypically beautiful woman?/Are we, as tentacled monstrosities, responding to some archetypal urge, I wonder?"

...

Up next: The Silver Age at Image with 1963

Sunday, April 27, 2014

NPM 2014: Olena Kalytiak Davis

 
And with a quick, lovely work we end this year's National Poetry Month with a work by Ukranian-American Olena Kalytiak Davis, "Corruption" which according to the author herself is about the pressures of Spring in general and National Poetry Month in specifics. Enjoy the work and have a lovely rest of the month, and hopefully look forward to some More Moore soon.


"Corruption" 
The dark wood after the dark wood: the cold 
after cold in April's false November.
In that second worser place: more gone, less there,
but in that lurid present present, cast and held, 

rooted, kept, like some old false-berried yew. 
Just against; the door leading to preferment 
shut; no longer believing in still, by some, few
means, method, could be, but for the bad day set, 

left, leaning atop bad day. 
       Out- and un-

ranked, toothached, wronged— rankled corruptive thing!
Ill-wishing, in-iquitous, clipped, up-hoped, stripped: just plain: thin.
Dare thy commit: commit this final fatal sin: 
God my God, I am displeased by spring.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

NPM 2014: Adrienne Rich


Better late than never with Ms. Rich and a work for anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable with their own skin.


Adrienne Rich: "Diving Into the Wreck"

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Monday, April 7, 2014

NPM 2014: Wallace Stevens

"Sunday Morning"


I

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, 
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. 
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe, 
As a calm darkens among water-lights. 
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine, 
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

II

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun, 
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth, 
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself: 
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights; 
All pleasures and all pains, remembering 
The bough of summer and the winter branch. 
These are the measures destined for her soul. 

III

Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth. 
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds, 
Until our blood, commingling, virginal, 
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star. 
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be 
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now, 
A part of labor and a part of pain, 
And next in glory to enduring love, 
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

IV

She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?"
There is not any haunt of prophecy, 
Nor any old chimera of the grave, 
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home, 
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured
As April's green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds, 
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow's wings.

V

She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss."
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, 
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths, 
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness, 
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

VI

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky, 
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth, 
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there, 
The silken weavings of our afternoons, 
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, 
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

VII

Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be, 
Naked among them, like a savage source.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise, 
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice, 
The windy lake wherein their lord delights, 
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills, 
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.

VIII

She hears, upon that water without sound, 
A voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering. 
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay."
We live in an old chaos of the sun, 
Or old dependency of day and night, 
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, 
Of that wide water, inescapable. 
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail 
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky, 
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink, 
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

NPM 2014: Marianne Moore



Since last year's National Poetry Month was a bit of the ol' proverbial sausage fest (and really, what a disgusting term that is, huh?) let's diversify a bit here on the first of the month with an enigmatic beauty by Marianne Moore. Enjoy this most magical of months with me!

He "Digesteth Harde Yron"

  Although the aepyornis
   or roc that lived in Madagascar, and
the moa are extinct,
the camel-sparrow, linked
   with them in size--the large sparrow
Xenophon saw walking by a stream--was and is
a symbol of justice.

   This bird watches his chicks with
   a maternal concentration-and he's
been mothering the eggs
at night six weeks--his legs
   their only weapon of defense.
He is swifter than a horse; he has a foot hard
as a hoof; the leopard

   is not more suspicious.  How
   could he, prized for plumes and eggs and young
used even as a riding-beast, respect men
   hiding actor-like in ostrich skins, with the right hand
making the neck move as if alive
and from a bag the left hand strewing grain, that ostriches

   might be decoyed and killed!  Yes, this is he
whose plume was anciently
the plume of justice; he
   whose comic duckling head on its
great neck revolves with compass-needle nervousness
when he stands guard,

   in S-like foragings as he is
   preening the down on his leaden-skinned back.
The egg piously shown
as Leda's very own
   from which Castor and Pollux hatched,
was an ostrich-egg.  And what could have been more fit
for the Chinese lawn it

   grazed on as a gift to an
   emperor who admired strange birds, than this
one, who builds his mud-made
nest in dust yet will wade
   in lake or sea till only the head shows.

 . . . . . . .

   Six hundred ostrich-brains served
   at one banquet, the ostrich-plume-tipped tent
and desert spear, jewel-
gorgeous ugly egg-shell
   goblets, eight pairs of ostriches
in harness, dramatize a meaning
always missed by the externalist.

   The power of the visible
   is the invisible; as even where
no tree of freedom grows,
so-called brute courage knows.
   Heroism is exhausting, yet
it contradicts a greed that did not wisely spare
the harmless solitaire

   or great auk in its grandeur;
   unsolicitude having swallowed up
all giant birds but an alert gargantuan
   little-winged, magnificently speedy running-bird.
This one remaining rebel
is the sparrow-camel.

 

Friday, February 21, 2014

More Moore part 31: Spawn & Violator part 2

Spawn: Blood Feud (1995)

Well, it's been a bit since we last visited the blood-n-slime-filled pits of mid-1990s Image Comics, but I managed to find a couple hours in between chain-reading '20s American literature to give a spin to Spawn: Blood Feud, a four-part work from right in the middle of the '90s that can be best summed up with the tagline 'Spawn fights Vampires'. Normally this is where I would say something like 'Blood Feud isn't BAD, but...' but truth be told, Blood Feud is pretty bad. But not entirely without merit. Let's examine.

The story starts in medias res, with something that appears to be Spawn carving up innocent tenement-dwellers. This leads to the city being whipped into an anti-supernatural frenzy by a man named John Sanker, a vampire hunter who convinces the populace that our favorite Hellspawn is actually a blood-sucking creature of the night and must be exterminated. Of course it's all a coverup, and John Sanker is really Jean Sans-Coeur or 'Heartless John', a 900-year-old vampire who's looking to eliminate the competition and set himself up as an apex predator (As Spawn says in an admittedly-funny line, "You sound like some kind of undead Donald Trump"). In true plucky Face/unstoppable Heel fashion, Sanker trounces Spawn the first two or three times they scuffle, and it's only when Spawn makes peace with his parasitic suit (remember, Todd McFarlane was influential in creating the similarly-suited Venom for Marvel) that John can be defeated.

Only he's not defeated, really. This may be just a problem with reading one arc in the middle of an ongoing series, but Sanker/Sans-Coeur shifts into some sort of naga-looking beast and escapes down a manhole and that's it, the story's over. I've always said one of the laziest things that a comics publisher can do is to not finish an arc in a self-contained way: sure Batman has been going on since 1941, but if I pick up, say, Strange Apparitions, I want it to have a beginning, middle, and end. Most of the time publishers and writers manage this, but not always, and Blood Feud is one of the unfortunate times when the ball is dropped, and finishing the story will leave a very unfinished taste in your mouth.

Other than that, the book is honestly just dull. Spawn and Sakner come off as total products of their generation, each one trying to out-grim and out-mope each other at every turn. Spawn's inner monologue captures that Alan Moore poetry a bit, especially when he's wracked with guilt over thinking that his suit is murdering innocents when he's unconscious, but otherwise he mostly just complains his way through the entirety of the story, and listening to Sanker drone on and on about the vampire's place in a world of humans is trying at best. Tony Daniel and Kevin Conrad are on the art side of things, and their work is bland, ugly, and typically mid-'90s, everything dark and gritty.

That's not to say the story is all bad; Moore attempts humor here and there and succeeds pretty much with all of it. Most of the relief from Spawn and Sanker's grim antics comes from Sam & Twitch, the two homicide detectives who have to clean up after the murders and piece together exactly what happened. Sam & Twitch function a bit like Batman's Bullock & Montoya, respectively, Sam is the slovenly overweight one and Twitch is the nervous and, uh, twitchy one. They not only provide laughs, but they figure out Sanker's game plan way before Spawn does. Twitch ends the story in bad shape, and part of me wants to read on a bit to see if he turns out okay, and that's a testament to both the likability of the characters and Moore's light touch on their writing. I'd read a Sam & Twitch spinoff, and incidentally it looks like they made one. Might have to check it out...

The other moment of brightness in the otherwise dull grey plot is a surprise appearance from Spawn's eternally wacky nemesis, Violator, in the third chapter. I'll put this out there right here and now: no matter what else you can say about Moore's time with Image, the man knows how to writer Violator. Spawn sneaks into a toxic waste pipe, figuring it's the only place where "not even the lowest of the vermin would go" only to find Violator, in homeless clown mode, comfortably reclining there. Violator mostly functions as an info dump in this story, there to explain to Spawn that his suit couldn't be the one murdering the tenement families, but it's not hyperbole to say that the majority of the time I enjoyed Blood Feud was the five pages where he appeared.

Beyond that, there's not much to say about Spawn: Blood Feud. It's very much a product of it's time, as demonstrated by Sanker in the second half of the book: nude, covered and blood, and ridiculously proportioned. It has none of the self-aware goofiness that the Violator stories had, and only a fraction of the black humor which had characterized Moore's best work during this period. It's unnecessary, and like The Killing Joke it feels less like a Moore work and more like a work very heavily influenced by Moore, but without even the beautiful art that the former work had going for it. Not much to recommend this one.

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Best quote: "You're dead, you sap! Vampire bites only affect living tissue! Boy will ya look at me! Kinda like Danny DeVito, only more distinguished, don'cha think?"

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Up next: Yes Virginia, more Spawn!