Friday, December 30, 2016

Such a Sumptuous Table We Set: The Ten Best Albums of 2016

Well, this long, bizarre, confounding year is nearly at a close. We lost some of the greats, and we gained those we didn't want. But through it all, we had our usual heavy splendour: 2016 has given us another fine feast in the world of music. Here's hoping to a better 2017, and days filled with songs strange and beautiful.

Grumbling Fur - Furfour

As I have said many times before, I have a great fondness for the intersection of pop and strangeness. Some of my favorite records take pretty, simple popular melodies and meld them with quirks that only serve to make their hooks hit harder. Grumbling Fur has tempered the experimental electronica of Glynnestra with a heavy dose of Eno/Cale for Furfour. Like Arp's More, a more cynical listener could call the sound derivative, but like More, that would be reductive; outside of Alexander Tucker's and Daniel O'Sullivan's Eno-esque vocals, the music itself is much more digital and layered than Eno's more stark ambiance. Grumbling Fur manage to sound rich and deep and a certain beauty shines through that we could use at the end of this year.

Melanie De Biasio - Blackened Cities

When Melanie De Biasio released No Deal, she was pegged as the next big thing in the world of jazz singers, her voice strong, clear, and beautiful. This year she turned sharply to the left with the release of Blackened Cities, in which her voice is just as lovely and powerful, but couched in haunting, industrial found sounds, like something out of Eraserhead. Armed with her piano, De Biasio reigns as queen over both a Necks-ish jazz combo and a hellish whorl of clattering strangeness that would fit well in the soundtrack of Silent Hill. It's a stunning combination, and I am impressed with De Biasio's dedication to her art and willingness to experiment. The work ebbs and flows from gorgeous to terrifying, and De Biasio is the anchor that makes it all work.


Ulver has always been a musical chameleon, from twisted lo-fi black metal to achingly produced European folk to electronic-spiked chamber music, but in the last few years they have shown a love of '60s and '70s exploratory jamming which comes to full force in ATGCLVLSSCAP, culled from improvisations during live shows and stitched together into coherent pieces. The album feels a bit like the live performances of Swans circa The Seer, that perfect balance of each instrument and the comfort between players to really allow the improvisation to flourish. Everything gels into such an amazingly cohesive whole, like a rock version of one of Miles Davis' improvs. If you want to spend an hour and a half inside a very elaborate headspace, you could do a lot worse than Ulver as a guide.

Agoraphobic Nosebleed - Arc

Another stunning turnaround, Agoraphobic Nosebleed's Arc finds the ultra-fast grindcore band slowing down...way, WAY down. At only three songs, the shortest of which hitting 7 minutes, the longest of which hitting almost 12, some of Arc's songs are longer than their previous whole albums. Kat Katz's vocals are pure, righteous black metal, but they are set within the unholy marriage of sludgy doom riffs and strutting, AC/DC-style arena rock. I'm always down for another doom metal album, and this strange trinity of hard rock styles works amazingly well. Despite the length of the songs, the album went by far too quickly for me, and I would love to see Agoraphobic Nosebleed do something similar in the future.

Terminal Cheesecake - Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients

Despite 22 years between 2016's Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients and their last outing, 1994's massive and glorious King of all Spaceheads, it doesn't feel like Terminal Cheesecake her missed a minute in-between. And even more impressively, this isn't a simple nostalgia record; Dandelion Sauce doesn't really sound like anything they had done before. This is Cheesecake's Hendrix album, pure amplifier worship grounded heavily with brain-melting guitar work. Neither the Butthole Surfers fried psych of Johnny Town-Mouse nor the enormous trippy dub of King of all Spaceheads is much in effect, as if Cheesecake knew that had already covered that ground and it was time to shoot into the stratosphere. The kings of UK psych have been missed, but 2016 finds them sitting the throne quite comfortably.

Comet Control - Center of the Maze

On their first album, Comet Control were a pure, immediate, necessary garage blast, seemingly coming out of nowhere and humbling every other band to strap on a fuzzbox in their path. Center of the Maze finds the band slowing way, way down and letting their freak flag fly high; while there are still the first album's muscular guitar workouts, even the heaviest tracks are absolutely bathed in psychedelic trappings. The mix is stew-thick, and the album just gets weirder and headier as it goes on, culminating in the enormous, fuzzed-out 20 minute suite of "Sick in Space" and "Artificial Light". On Center of the Maze, Comet Control out-Floyds Floyd, and we're better off for having them in our midst.

Black Mountain - IV

Any year that Black Mountain puts out an album can't be all bad. Like Comet Control, IV is the sound of a band stretching way out; compared to 2010's heavy Zep-fest Wilderness Heart, IV drips with psych sludge. The album is metal goddess Amber Webber's time to shine; while she got an occasional lead vocal on Black Mountain's previous efforts, her role in IV is much more pronounced, and her powerful, beautiful, terrifying wailing gives the album a pomp that Stephen McBean's windswept wanderer vocals couldn't quite achieve on previous albums. Black Mountain are still our generation's Zeppelin, but they're getting further and further from the source material with each album, evolving into something new, strange, and massive.

Gnod - The Mirror

A new Gnod release fills me with joy in the same way that Nurse With Wound's albums once did: opening a new Gnod album is like Christmas day, you never know what it is you'll be getting into. Just as the US is in the middle of our own uncomfortable brush with fascism, so has the UK been experiencing something similar, and after 2015's easy album of the year, the monumental 3-disc Infinity Machines, Gnod took their rage at the politics of their country and birthed us The Mirror. The exact opposite of Infinity Machines, a 3-song, 40-minute blast of righteous fury in the vein of Swans' seminal Cop, all thudding, industrial clatter, with vocals howling in anger, trying in vain to compete with the enormity of the music around it. The Mirror is almost insustainably tense, and by the end of the 20-minute closer "Sodom & Gomorrah" it feels like the Infinity Machine is devouring itself. It's easy to be mad about where 2016 has taken us, and The Mirror is your soundtrack to that anger.

Marissa Nadler - Strangers

After the beastly devastation of acts like Gnod and Black Mountain, Marissa Nadler's Strangers is a perfect antidote; a work of such simple, rich beauty that can bring tears to the eyes of even the most hardened cynic. Each song's instrumentation is so different, anchored by Nadler's astonishingly beautiful voice, and it's that variety, matched with the familiarity of said voice, that makes Strangers such a treat. This is an album to listen to in the dark during the rain, a sensuous lullaby that can make sense of even the most confusing situations. Marissa Nadler has given us one of the best albums of the year, resplendent in its simplicity even as it changes its conventions with each song.

David Bowie - Blackstar

Bowie does latter-day Scott Walker. Brilliant! Even before Mr. Bowie's absolutely gut-wrenching passing, which in retrospect was the harbinger of everything that has happened since, I knew that Blackstar had to be on my list. And when all has been said and done, no album is more worthy of topping this list. Recklessly experiemental, as cutting-edge as he ever was, David Bowie's swan song is strange and hideous and heartbreaking and oh so, so gorgeous. While nothing tops the arch-experimentalism of the title track, there is not a wasted moment on the whole of Blackstar. Like Infinity Machines, or You're Dead!, or More, or The Seer before it, Blackstar has a sense of infinite possibility to it, an album that will stand the test of time and reveal new pleasures with each listen off into the deep future. Bowie might be gone, but the legacy he left with us is staggering, and it's perfectly encapsulated within the strange, shifting confines of Blackstar. There's no better choice for album of the year.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Banging Pots and Pans to Make You Understand: Songs to Oppose Fascism

So, here we are.

I was contemplating a post about a week and a half ago that, though it seemed clear that Trump was doomed, there was still a pretty big lesson to be learned in this election cycle from the lack of willingness to have discourse, and the subsequent radicalism and hardlining on all sides that a lack of discourse entailed. Of course, since then the country has let its voice be heard, and I was devastatingly misled in my faith in my fellow man, so here we are. Here we are, where a man can be endorsed by a former KKK Grand Wizard and the founder of Stormfront, a man can have a glowing writeup on the front page of the 'official' Klan newspaper, and still be elected president. We have a long four years ahead of us, and unless we learn from the lessons of this year (still that bit about an unwillingness to learn from each other) the next election will likely be even worse.

So what's a right-minded American to do? Keep each other safe, fight the best you can, and if you need a little music to make it, my friends and I have whipped up this playlist of fascist opposition from all genres of music for you to enjoy. We're all in this together, so let's do what we can.

"We are far more united...than things that divide us." - Jo Cox

First up, here's the YouTube link to the playlist proper, if you want to listen to it without interruption.

Dead Kennedys - Nazi Punks Fuck Off!
Nowhere else to start, really, is there? 'Overproduced' by a phantom Martin Hannet, a blast of righteous indignation. A great way to start the day.

Heaven 17 - (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thing
And now for something completely different, to just show that at the time, even the most clear commercial bait single could be politically charged. Like a cleaner-scrubbed New Order, so stereotypically endemic of the '80s, undeniably catchy and with a great message.

XTC - No Thugs in Our House
Maybe it's a guilty pleasure, but I have a great love for XTC. Along with Game Theory, they really brought the sound of the '60s that I loved into the '80s, and deep within the time of the twin terrors of Reagan and Thatcher, XTC gave us this song, pointing out how our own blood can be tainted by the forces of oppression, how seductive regressive thinking could be.

Crass - Bloody Revolutions
"How can you leave out the grandparents of antifascist punk Crass? Bloody Revolutions is such a fantastic song, not only for its bizarre medley composition but for its razor-sharp analysis critiquing both organized fascism AND the armchair communists who blithely supported similarly oppressive regimes, the only difference being the people in power." 
- Matt Kellegrew

Linton Kwesi Johnson - Fite Dem Back
I think Andrei, who I started A Screaming Comes Across the Sky with, was the one that introduced me to LKJ, but at the time I didn't recognize the pure political fire couched in those slow, dubby reggae lines. This is a song for the radical, the ones who are out there now blocking streets and putting themselves at risk while I sit safely here at home typing on my computer.

The Dicks - Bourgeois Fascist Pig
"The Dicks are just awesome old weird Texas punk. Now, I usually hate most Texas punk because it's usually so purposely offensive for the sake of being offensive, which for me just gets old after a song or two. So yeah, a song about killing kids and murdering folks with a knife probably wouldn't work for me under normal circumstances...but I don't think these are normal circumstances anymore..." 
- Jim Snyder

Serge Gainsbourg - Nazi Rock
Gainsbourg's Rock Around the Bunker is just such a gloriously deranged album, a record from 1975 which married goofy, '50s big-band arrangements to tales of Gainsbourg's time as a Jewish boy in France during the Nazi occupation. Gainsbourg's modus operandi in this one, and in most of his work, is ridiculous, over-the-top lampooning, and it's beautiful to hear how little respect he gives his oppressors in this song, in this arrangement. You can imagine the stage show, with can-can girls in SS uniforms doing kicks behind Serge, the Eternal Pervert grinning drunkenly in a disheveled suit. Glorious.

The Cranberries - Zombie
"I'm an Irish girl, so I chose an Irish song. The Cranberries sing about the 1916 Easter rising against the Brits. A song for Republicanism." 
- Amanda Lauer

Charlie Haden - El Quinto Regimento/Los Cuatero Generales/Viva la Quince Brigada
The inspiration for this exercise. Haden in '68 leading an incredible jazz band through a trio of Spanish folk songs turned patriotic and pro-Republican when Franco was crushing democracy during the Spanish Civil War of the '30s. Haden wanted the songs to resonate with listeners weary of Vietnam, but this piece transcends time, and is just as essential today as it was in the '60s, or the '30s.

The (International) Noise Conspiracy - Smash it Up
"The (International) Noise Conspiracy's "Smash it Up" is dated not only in its French Situationist politics, but its jangly '90s guitar sound. The fun of it is in the clash of militancy and pop music reminiscent of anarchist-turned-sports-anthem purveyors Chumbawumba." 
- Matt Kellegrew

The (English) Beat - Two Swords
I have a deep, irrational love of ska; it's so much fun and such a pleasure to listen to, and The Beat is one of the greats. "Two Swords" is another song warning against hardline attitudes on both sides, with the wonderful chorus of "Even though that cunt's a Nazi". Be like The Beat.

Rush - Freewill
"I like this song for the idea that while we can go through life thinking that things get done to us, we can still take the view that we guide our own lives, make our own choices, and seek the good in ourselves and in others." 
- John Amico

Cornelius Cardew - The Spirit of Cable Street
Carnelius Cardew might be the most unknown artist on this list, a composer who went full-tilt on heavily orchestrated, politically-charged 'pop music' like this one, a pean to the rioters who clashed with Oswald Mosley's reprehensible British Union of Fascists back in 1936. Musically, there are a few phrases that remind me of Frank Zappa, someone else I probably should have put in this playlist.

Woody Guthrie - All You Fascists Bound to Lose
"Woody Guthrie emblazoned his guitar with the slogan 'this machine kills fascists'. He wrote songs that he believed did not belong to him, but instead to everyone. "All You Fascists Bound to Lose" is a public anthem. The machine of the guitar kills fascism beyond the literal, attacking it instead at its ideological root." 
- Matt Kellegrew

Charles Mingus - Fables of Faubus
Like Serge Gainsbourg, Charles Mingus engages with his foe of choice, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, by refusing to take him seriously. "Fables of Faubus" is goofy, almost cartoonish, painting the governor who opposed desegregation in Little Rock in the '50s as a bumbling buffoon. I included the lyrical version, since the lyrics are so biting and sharp, but the original instrumental from Mingus Ah Um is actually the song I'm more familiar with, having grown up with that record. Either one gets the point across swimmingly.

Sonic Youth - Youth Against Fascism
"On the grungy, bass-riff-driven second single off Sonic Youth's Dirty, prescient and profane lyrics fly off like metal shavings. It rocks, it's groovy, and it's straight to the fuckin' point. Brings ya back to the early '902, when a major label tried to sell the band, defined by their noise and discord, as MTV-friendly to a confounded America. Crazy times. Thank god we live in a saner era now, right?" 
- Dan Callahan

Jucifer - Королева - оленьи рожки Queen of Antlers
Grungy, gross, absolutely throat-shredding metal from the king and queen of political/historical metal, Jucifer. This one is about the female Russian soldiers during World War II in general and the Battle of Stalingrad in particular, who were trapped between the twin tyrants of Stalin and Hitler and had to defend their homes from the brutality of fascism. 

Frederic Rzewski - The People United Will Never be Defeated!
And we come now to the end, Frederic Rzewski's theme and variations of "¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!", a Chilean worker's unity song from 1973. By giving the piece the Goldberg treatment, Frederic opens up its message to encompass everything about resistance...everyone who listens will find a variation that resonates with them. The piece is romantic, aching, beautiful, and above all united, a show of force through solidarity that we could all take to heart in the coming years.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

National Poetry Month 2016: William Bronk

I've been busy, as some of you may have noticed, publishing a book of my own poetry and short stories, so this is my first post for National Poetry Month this year. Pretty embarrassing, I know. William Bronk is up there with Blake and Hart Crane as an influence on my own tone, so now with my stuff out there and available to the world, I thought it would be a nice time to share. Enjoy!

William Bronk: "The Smile on the Face of a Kouros"

This boy, of course, was dead, whatever that
might mean. And nobly dead. I think we should feel
he was nobly dead. He fell in battle, perhaps,
and this carved stone remembers him
not as he may have looked, but as if to define
the naked virtue the stone describes as his.
One foot is forward, the eyes look out, the arms
drop downward past the narrow waist to hands
hanging in burdenless fullness by the heavy flanks.
The boy was dead, and the stone smiles in his death
lightening the lips with the pleasure of something achieved:
an end. To come to an end. To come to death
as an end. And coming, bring there intact, the full
weight of his strength and virtue, the prize with which
his empty hands are full. None of it lost,
safe home, and smile at the end achieved.
Now death, of which nothing as yet - or ever - is known,
leaves us alone to think as we want of it,
and accepts our choice, shaping the life to the death.
Do we want an end? It gives us; and takes what we give
and keeps it; and has, this way, in life itself,
a kind of treasure house of comely form
achieved and left with death to stay and be
forever beautiful and whole, as if
to want too much the perfect, unbroken form
were the same as wanting death, as choosing death
for an end. There are other ways; we know the way
to make the other choice for death: unformed
or broken, less than whole, puzzled, we live
in a formless world. Endless, we hope for no end.
I tell you death, expect no smile of pride
from me. I bring you nothing in my empty hands.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Decade's Work

Hello to any and all reading! As of this afternoon, Amazon has started to carry a collection of my verse and prose from the past ten years, entitled Verdant Hymnal!

Eternal, undying gratitude to Chris B. Bollweg from The Lilim Chronicler for taking time out of his day to edit the manuscript and help me with the cover design. This book is as much his at it is mine. Many deep thanks to Symphony Marie for providing the cover photograph. It's crazy to me that this is real and I'm holding it in my hand. Give it a read when you get a chance, and let me know what you think! Thank you to everyone!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Simi Supports Our Cops

On the day of Nancy Reagan's funeral, it seems to me apropos to offer this, a brief essay on what I am loathe to call my 'hometown', deep in the heart of Reagan Country.

"Simi Supports Our Cops"

As you enter the blighted zone just East of Moorpark College, that withered necrocracy called Simi Valley, it’s understandable if a certain malaise might grip your heart, if spectres of damned Reaganites might whisper into your ear, “leave, leave this place!” until at last they quiet down with your vehicle safely making it over the Los Angeles County line. You hopefully have a luckier lot in life than that of your humble narrator, whom God has cursed with the need to drive back and forth through Simi daily, to gaze upon the sun-blasted youth hooked on heroin, or the embalmed old guard hooked on Fox News. But perhaps you, too, have to make the journey of shame through this forbidden land on a regular basis, you may notice a fairly new addition to the landscape; a pair of signs, one on Madera and one on Tapo Canyon, which proudly state “Simi Valley Supports Our Cops” over a clip-art graphic of a thumbs-up.
The existence of these signs seem to be proof positive that old white people are crazy. There have been no recent police scandals within the town. Indeed since most of the inhabitants are the same brand of clannish and mean, the temporarily inconvenienced millionaires Steinbeck  mused about, everybody tends to get along in that sort of if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us way. Really, the preponderance of police living in the town is stifling: on any given avenue one house in three might contain the family of a policeman. Who, then, are these signs supposed to convince? Are the police of Simi Valley so neurotic that they need to remind themselves daily of their greatness? Does the government of the town feel the need to visually pat themselves on the back, to remind themselves that no matter the trouble in other places in America, here we get along with our police? Was there really a town hall vote, a people taxed, a printer hired, a crew contracted to put up these smug reminders of echo-chamber greatness?
Simi Valley is a town with three Wal-Marts and no bookstores. It’s a haunting enclave to white, elderly, suburbanite tunnel-vision that is encapsulated so perfectly in a pair of signs that exist only to reinforce a belief that you could never convince the populace is anything less than a universal truth. Maybe that’s what they’re for: in “Simi Valley Supports Our Cops” you have a microcosm of the town itself, a statement of purpose from a hermetic world where the thoughts and worries of the rest of the planet are muted without a care. Perhaps one day, after the apocalypse, the signs will remain standing among the blasted landscape around them.