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.