The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: October, 2013

300

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300 inhabits the rational brutalism and militaristic spirit of the Spartans so thoroughly and so graphically that, if I were to tear a page, I would half-expect it to bleed on my hand. As the cliché goes, this book is nasty, brutish, and short, a concentrated dose of propaganda that dispenses with subtlety on the front cover and becomes more muscular and bold from there. If it is propaganda, and we know that Frank Miller is not averse to explicitly ideological work, it is proficient and effective, an artistic vanguard for civilization. In criticizing this book, one attacks not a mere story but an entire culture, a mythology that has become second nature to us so that, when we are confronted with such a vivid incarnation of it we fall down in awe and fear. Confronting this book as a Westerner means confronting oneself, to strip off the tolerant trappings of liberalism and civic society, the niceties of the so-called “public sphere,” and find oneself on either the black or white side of a red line.

To simply condemn 300 as an artifact of Western imperialism and cultural chauvinism, to point out that it gleefully dehumanizes an entire race of people and gives us not history but a dark if seductive myth, is not enough. Everyone with a developed sense of awareness of representation and media criticism can see that this is stark tribalism masquerading as a defense of enlightenment, the product of paranoia and a siege mentality so pervasive it defies description. In order for a narrative like 300 to lose its power over us, we need to see that it does exercise that power. Much of the Western ethos depends on our identification with the Greeks in this battle. If we flip the script and embrace the Persians, we ally ourselves, by extension, with the Iranian ayatollahs and Islamofascists and terrorists, the numberless and faceless masses who threaten to overwhelm our islands of rational thought. And it is only through relentless discipline and unity, only an absolute identification with the ideals of Sparta, that we will overcome these threats. Otherwise, we will be slaves to mysticism, cowering before despots who rule us with fear.

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Protecting the freedom of the many requires a blood sacrifice of a few, for without vigilance comes decadence and complacency. We in the West have won the war for history, but all victories are temporary. We need to look at the seething masses of Persian immortals, the warrior-slaves of Xerxes, and tremble as if looking into a mirror. Nothing separates us and them except our nations, the ties of kinship and the ideals they engender.

Miller understand this, as he wrote in this piece for NPR:

“For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die. All of a sudden I realize what my parents were talking about all those years.

“Patriotism, I now believe, isn’t some sentimental, old conceit. It’s self-preservation. I believe patriotism is central to a nation’s survival. Ben Franklin said it: If we don’t all hang together, we all hang separately. Just like you have to fight to protect your friends and family, and you count on them to watch your own back”

Self-preservation means men protecting their women nations, and homes, keeping away all the “louts, thieves, and rapists.” Self-preservation means no dissent from ironclad dedication to indestructible ideals. Our bodies might perish in the fight, but the ideals live on, immortal, as long as there are bodies willing to breathe free air and spill the blood of those who threaten their radiance. After all, if we don’t kill them, they are surely coming to kill us, and in far greater numbers than we can imagine. Propaganda and agitation are necessary to keep us from sleeping too well at night. Without nightmares, without the full knowledge that we are hated and beleaguered, we will become like those Athenians, slaves to pleasures and opulence. Without a vanguard, the noble dead, the 300, we will all be swept away.

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All of this has a certain revolutionary ring to it, does it not? All this talk of upheaval, all these images of dead Persians used as mortar for walls, all this blood spilled for noble causes. But it more accurately represents Walter Benjamin’s phrase that “Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.” Behind Frank Miller’s fantasized bile and blood there is the failure of liberalism. What he proposes is a repudiation of all critique of the West, of a full-blooded and passionate embrace of national pride and patriotism for the sake of our own survival. It’s war against imagined oppressions based on nostalgia for old oppressions.

One critic has characterized Frank Miller as a libertarian. If 300 is anything to go by, he can call himself whatever he wants but he is nothing more than a scoundrel and a liar. He lies not because he dabbles in propaganda, nor because he is irrational or somehow insane. He lies because he believes that ideals matter more than facts, that our own distortions should be the basis of our action rather than some outside reality. “Libertarian” proto-fascism of this ilk is actually a perfectly rational response, a defense of something that has real value to real people. What is working in 300 is not well-intentioned white appropriation like Habibi (which humanizes some Arabs by dehumanizing others) or the naïveté of something like The Pride of Baghdad. It is, rather, a principled stand for a set of values in response to a perceived threat. We should read this and mark ourselves. What pleasure do we take in this? What fragments of truth do we find ourselves nodding to? Why do we have to acknowledge the beauty of the artwork if we find what it depicts repugnant? Is there something broken in criticism, in the whole system of values that underpins it, if we can find anything but fault in 300?

I ask these questions because, if criticism is a searching after the truth, we need to make sure that it’s well-equipped to do so. We can’t just be impressed by the strength of a book’s convictions. We need to have a framework for deciding whether those convictions are true or not. By all means, read 300. But remember that it comes armed, and whether you’re a pacifist or a professional revolutionary, you’re going to need to defend yourself.

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The Pride of Baghdad

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I’ve been tasked with writing a paper explaining the connections between imperialist ideology and the medium of graphic novels. Since September 11, there has been a whole slew of media artifacts concerning the Middle East and the role of the United States in the region. I have chosen several of them written by both Western and Middle Eastern authors (albeit Westernized in the case of Marjane Satrapi–on which more in a later post) and, along the lines of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, attempted to articulate what he calls a “contrapuntal” analysis, taking into account both the ideology of the metropole or colonial centre and the inevitable protest or response from the colonized world. This is a fairly complex task in this case, since the production of graphic novels and their translation or writing in English is dominated by publishers headquartered in “imperial” territory. However, I also believe that it is a worthwhile effort because, especially in the case of graphic novels, there has not been enough critical writing situating them in American/British/Western imperialist discourse.

My first review, as indicated above was of The Pride of Baghdad, written by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and drawn by Niko Henrichon. A brief outline of the plot follows. A group of four lions, a younger and an older female, a male, and a young cub, live as prisoners/residents of the Baghdad Zoo. When American fighter planes begin their bombing campaign, the destruction of the zoo walls allows the quarter of carnivores to escape. Plodding their way through the war-torn streets of the city, they encounter many hostile elements but overcome them one by one until they are gunned down by American soldiers. This is all based on true events, recounted here.

Before getting more specific, I need to establish a few principles that will guide my analysis. First, we nut acknowledge that The Pride of Baghdad exists primarily as a response to the imperialist 2003 invasion of Iraq. It would not exist without it, and is indeed unimaginable without that ill-fated campaign. This is true not only because it takes inspiration from real events but also because the authors would probably never have thought to tell this story without the actuality of the invasion. Second, the writer and artist, being American and Canadian, respectively, produce their work as individuals but always contextualized within an existing Western discourse about the Middle East. While we must not forget the individuality of this particular book, our analysis will not be properly critical unless it acknowledges that The Pride of Baghdad is the product of a society and not just of two separate wills. Vaughan and Henrichon are implicated in a complex apparatus of production, editing, and distribution that involves a huge number of socioeconomic factors beyond their control. We need to follow up Said’s proposition that all cultural production from the metropolitan centre, in this case the United States, participates in imperialism.

This book takes what is now the conventional frame of the Middle East and represents it to a Western audience. That conventional frame is one of war and chaos. Vaughan’s story privileges the perspective of the animals, dramatizing their plight. These animals do not understand what is going on around them and try to survive as best they can. Since the animals speak, they are also able to embody differing views on political and philosophical matters. Zill, the alpha male, is mild-mannered and pragmatic, a voice of reason mediating usually mediating between the two females. He also takes on the role of protector and avenger later on in a confrontation with a large bear that threatens to kill the two females. Of those two females, the younger, Noor, is a youthful idealist who longs for freedom. Safa, the older, is deeply cynical, one-eyed, and constantly arguing with Noor. The cub, Ali, mostly gets kidnapped or otherwise imperiled, though he does set of a stampede and defeats the bear with the help of his father.

Human characters are sidelined and, with the exception of American soldiers, silent. This is curious. No native Iraqis have the privilege of speaking, or even showing their faces, and they are mainly portrayed as passive victims of the bombing. The Iraqi with the largest role in the story is Saddam Hussein himself, though he never appears in the flesh. Instead, he is present to the narrative through his statue, looming proudly over a rapidly disintegrating city, and his palace, which is portrayed in alternately Edenic and horrifying ways. It is the lair of the bear, a false paradise for the lions, and ultimately the space where the narrative reaches its conclusion, just as Kurtz’s compound is the final destination on the winding journey in Heart of Darkness. The fact that the bear, black and demonic, lives in the presidential palace is not a coincidence, but perfectly logical considering the campaign to paint Hussein in almost Satanic terms that took place in the West.

Of course, American armaments, in the form of bombs, lumbering Abrams tanks, and gunfire instigate the plot and provide most of the terror. In one poignant scene, a wise and ancient turtle laments the plagues the “black stuff” has brought to the region. As the voice of history in the book, the turtle criticizes the frenzy over oil and the wars it causes. In this way, the story tells us, the very animals and the Earth itself have felt the bane of human exploitation, the latter of which is a pervasive theme in The Pride of Baghdad. Humans are simultaneously seen as providers, as in the example of the zookeepers, and agents of destruction and oppression. While the latter predominates, we do see that the narrative sympathizes with Iraqi people even though it denies them any agency on their own lands. While the American incursion is  portrayed in horrific terms, the book says very little about them, since the animal protagonists do not understand national divisions or the nature of the war raging around them.

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Therefore, The Pride of Baghdad represents and reinforces dominant stereotypes about Iraqis as passive victims of Saddam’s repression on the one hand and American violence on the other. We see stereotypical ruined streets, sumptuous palaces, faceless and voiceless dead bodies, and hubristic monuments, but the authors have displaced the real human cost of the war onto the animals, who stand in a conveniently neutral and ignorant position. Their land, and their oil, is represented as a curse. The author and artist, while critical of the war and its infliction of human suffering, fall into tired and familiar patterns when constructing their narrative. How much easier it is to sympathize with a troop of slaughtered lions than hundreds of thousands of Iraqis!

 

Arcade Fire: Reflektor

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Let’s keep this one short and sweet. To do that, I will first zoom out and look at the state of rock in general and see where Arcade Fire fits in the scheme of things. After that, I’ll discuss how Reflektor’s individual character raises important questions about the band and how its success and failure as a product and as a work of art ties into some of the points I make in the first part.

First, consider this quotation from The Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky, writing in an article about another Montréal-based band called Suuns:

[Rock] is now, and ever more decidedly, about looking over its shoulder. Suuns are pretty clearly arty kids doing rock … but that is no longer enough to put them outside the tradition. Rather, at this point, it just puts them in the long tradition of arty kids doing rock. When the Suuns reference Sonic Youth or the Beatles, they aren’t creating a rupture or a gimmick or a revolution. They aren’t looking to escape the implications or tropes of their most obvious and immediate heritage. On the contrary, they’re just extending and celebrating the work of their forbears. They might as well be a blues band, or a bluegrass one.

Rock music at all levels of the industry has retreated from the future. Any future. Loving admiration for the past has replaced critical distance or attempts to go further, and rock music everywhere becomes more obsessed with its own past. At this point, rock music is mostly judged for its adherence to certain established conventions, its ability to conjure up old memories. There is an utter lack of vision, and the rock world is no longer governed by a stable of core bands but a multiplying array of smaller ones, each of them sustaining little micro-niches and tunneling in a million different directions.

The music industry, deeply wounded by digitalization and the ongoing collapse of CD sales, has splintered into a two-tier structure. On the very apex, there are a few reliable mass-market stars. On the second and lower level, there is mass chaos. Members of successful bands like Grizzly Bear can’t afford health insurance. Corporations capitalize on indie rock’s cachet of cool for film trailers and commercials while offering musicians only a pittance. At this point, most people in rock music don’t write about social or economic issues, and even fewer would dare to be overtly political. This is symptomatic of a transformation of punk/indie/alternative rock, the result of its moving from a working class genre to a middle class and academic one. John Lennon came from Liverpool and had no higher education. Win Butler has a degree in religious studies from McGill University. With that trajectory, one is bound to observe some fundamental changes in how music sounds and what its priorities are. At this point, indie rock is largely the music of bourgeois complacency and fussy formalism, tamed and popularized by a whole apparatus of websites and writers who give these albums arguably more press than pop smashes that sell far more records.

Arcade Fire began their career with an album called Funeral. On this album, they are constantly making a demon of the light. Flashbulbs, missionaries with their little lights, and hint of luminance is an object of suspicion. The album, befitting its title, is a backward-gazing one, far from straightforward but not treading into undiscovered territory so much as twisting and complexifying what has come before. What we are left with at the end is a dreary monument to disaffection. Reflektor raises important questions, but refuses to offer any kind of answer. It skulks in the darkness, like a dance party that refuses to end because the people in it are trying so hard they can’t stop. At one point, Win Butler intones that he doesn’t know if he likes rock music, sounding like a more polished John Lennon from “Yer Blues.” Unlike the blues, unlike jazz at its best, unlike the best of music anywhere, this album is sad and turgid but does not have any longing for a brighter future. Mere nihilism is not enough to make bad music–witness the charming pop craft of Stephin Merritt–but for music this enormous and loaded with portent it is a death knell. I suppose we’ll probably be stuck with bands building their monuments to the past for the time being.

Until society moves on, we can’t expect our musicians to. I just wish the sound of No Future were more interesting than we find on Reflektor. 

Angels Visit Mr. Harold Zo

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All at once the tour van was light. Mr. Harold Zo awoke and looked around. Quivver and Quake were sound asleep, but the radiance blinded him, his heart pushing blood through his body desperately. A figure dressed in a whirl–leather jacket, feather-spoked hat, dark glasses, and a long skirt that trailed down to its ankles, bound by a studded belt–stood in the source of the brightness. Its hair jutted up like the tip of the craziness iceberg, scraping against the ceiling. Harold found his slotted shades and regarded the figure, the glasses improving his vision for once and not merely his appearance.

“Good evening, Mr. Harold Zo,” it said, “I assume you know what this is about.”

“I am a-a-afraid not,” Zo said. His words kept getting caught at the back of his throat, partially due to nighttime dryness and partially out of astonishment. Though it was warm there, his teeth chattered. Some irreverent pop song was–confound it!–stuck in his head again.

“Please excuse my spectacular entrance, but I thought a man in show business would appreciate it.”

Zo considered. “It was certainly spectacular, though I’m not sure to what purpose. The bus has a door.”

“Never got in the habit of using them. I understand, though, that you had a rather long sojourn in the land of the dead. Is this true?” Mr. Harold shivered and blinked. Heart racing and hands sweating as they gripped the sides of his seat, his body was in a state of minor shock. His mind was surprisingly clear considering the ungodly hour, but it did him little good since he could hardly speak. His earlier eloquence surprised him in retrospect.

He said to the figure, “For awhile, those were the only audiences we could get. Plus it was part of the deal.”

The figure sat on Quivver’s unconscious jacket-covered lump. Let’s just call it an angel, since we’re all perfectly literate here. The light dimmed slightly, and  Mr. Harold began to calm down. He was still surprised when he was able to stand up and walk to grab a half-finished water bottle from the seat in front of him, but by the time he returned a few seconds later he was acclimated to this bizarre situation.

The angel smiled cryptically, saying, “It’s about time you got word from us. You’ve been in league with the devil for some time now.”

“That just makes me a rock star,” Harold said.

The angel laughed. “True enough. But just because you’re not unique doesn’t really earn you any favours. Either with critics or with us. Now let me tell you why I’m here. I’m here to tell you that you’re just fine with us. We’re not out to void your deal or take away your skills. As a matter of fact, we’re looking for some advice. Well, first I’m asking for some advice, then we have something to tell you.”

“What advice do you need from me? Unless it’s advice about ruining your academic career or slick guitar shreds. If you’re thinking of putting a band together up there, I could recommend a good bassist I used to know rather intimately.”

Celestial beings, as we know, have a rather stunted sense of humour, owing to their natural perfection. Their taste in clothing is likewise impaired, and they are an eccentric bunch all told. Especially since no one can really tell them what to do. The angel sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m afraid I’ll never understand your sarcasm, though I think I’m getting better at it. The question I have is this: what are some good songs about what you call existential distress? We want to know the weight of the world. It sounds like a good topic for some party jams.”

It should also be noted that angels tend to regard human suffering with a sense of detached amusement, thinking of our affairs as museum pieces, the planets as glass display cases. We’re far from the only life in this universe, of course, but angels tend to like us because, unlike most extraterrestrial beings, we complain so damn much.

“That’s quite enough of the narration,” the angel said, correctly. “Lay them on me. And quickly. We need to have the CD burned and over to my friend’s house in a a few days, and arranging playlists is not an art for the impatient.”

“What songs do you have already?” said Mr. Harold Zo. Sleep weighed heavily on his eyes. His demeanor turned from annoyance to aggravation as the angel continued to talk. Part of it was the voice. It was the disinterested voice of a being without anything to do, no schedule to keep, nothing to do other than dispense random quests to credulous people who thought they would be cast into hellfire if they failed. In reality, the angels probably forgot about them a couple of days after they met.

“Not sure. All I know is that we need two.”

Harold took a crumpled receipt from his pocket, scribbled down two titles, and handed it to the angel, who stuffed it into his enormous studded belt.

“If you don’t look at them, you’re liable to forget why I gave them to you. At least look at them once.”

“Yes, you’ve had dealings with our kind before. Of the more diabolical sort, but still. We all fall from the same tree, as you people say.”

The two songs were:

Harold said, “What about your side?”

“These are fine songs.”

And so they are. Jaimeo Brown and Matana Roberts, two of the true voices, would lend their presence to the playlist in the celestial realm. Probably be forgotten by such capricious ears and fickle, dulled minds. But still their work would ring out.

The angel looked back up at Harold and said, “You should quit being a rock star and focus on saving the world. Why are these people so sad? You should work on that.”

With that, and a colossal boom the angel disappeared, waking up the other two just in time to catch a glimpse of the fashion disaster from heaven exiting the tour van. Harold Zo looked at Quivver and Quake’s startled, uncomprehending faces, their narrow brows and exhaustion-strained eyes.

“Maybe he’s right. Except he’s also a jerk and a clown.”

Quivver rolled her eyes.

“Look at how we dress on stage. Do you think we’re ever right at least once?”

“Even a broken clock…”

“Should we become superheroes or something?”

“Angels aren’t worth listening to, at least not after tiger heaven blew to shreds and made them go all nutso.”

“Still, he was kind in asking my advice. Does that mean I have some kind of musical knowledge?”

“Go back to sleep.”

They all slept. In the morning, they went out searching for Alexius. It was time to start saving the world.

Christian Kitsch #5: Apologetix

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Friends, readers, fellow denizens of the Internet. Recall my last post on the Christian parody industry, that most entrepreneurial arena of branding exploitation and forced, witless puns that would make James Joyce’s eyepatch flip in dismay. I have yet to thoroughly articulate the demonic terror-scapes of Contemporary Christian Music, mainly because I do not wish to tempt Death, but this post could serve as a mercifully brief introduction to it. The contemporary Christian culture industry has made its coin and notoriety by serving as a sanitized and anemic copy of the secular culture industry, which is then marketed to Christian youths and parents as a balm in a warped and corrupt worldly culture. From bizarro Archie comics to T-shirts to pop music vacated of all sexuality.

What makes Apologetix so objectionable, and therefore worth considering in isolation from the main stream of CCM is its intersection with Christian parody and “humour.” The band comes from a lovely city, Pittsburgh, and has built up a solid fanbase over a career spanning twenty years and nineteen albums. Ahem. It should be noted, however, that though the spirit of this band is lighthearted indeed, the point of their songs seems to me not so much to parody or satirize classic rock and pop hits but rather to purify them of anything verging on unacceptable to a radio-listening Christian audience. Their work is pitched straight at a fabricated demographic, that, sadly, I can confirm has some incarnation in the real world. Before discussing their style and substance–or what there is of it–let us listen to an example of their work.

Now, Apologetix normally covers crusty and ubiquitous white artists like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, the Eagles, and the like. They tend to avoid black artists, which I think is a good strategy. On the other hand, they have to appeal to the slightly edgier suburban crowd that loves “Gold Digger” and Eminem and the like (don’t get me started on their parody of a Limp Bizkit song), which means they need to rap and try to imitate Jamie Fox’s Ray Charles impression, thereby vampirically draining all soul and humour from the song and turning it into a desperately stupid polemic against evolution. Nothing in this song indicates that the parodeers have anything other than a basic aptitude for music, and their merits as wordsmiths are more than questionable.  There is nothing in the song’s soulful vibe and upbeat, slightly ironic bounce that would make it suitable for this kind of adaptation. Not only this, but unlike in Weird Al’s work–and I am dreadfully sorry for dragging his name into this–the jokes rarely land and when they do it’s with a heavy thump that can elicit laughter only from the most snide and juvenile creationists.

I think that is more than enough about this band at present. While you’re here, though, you might want to cleanse yourself with some life-affirming antidotes I’ve whipped up just for this occasion. Let no one say that tigers are inhospitable to their readers. Adieu.

Melt Yourself Down: Melt Yourself Down

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I have finally attained some peace and quiet, though no thanks to this album.

Hailing from London, Melt Yourself Down is an ensemble dedicated to controlled chaos and music without borders. Led by saxophonist Pete Wareham, lately of Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear, the band plays music so intense that its name rings more like a call to revolution than a clever reference to a no-wave record from the late 1980s. It happens to be both, and that is all the better suited to a band that prefers to compound and add rather than reduce or simplify.

Their self-titled debut is an anarchistic, groovy assault — 35 minutes of the listener sitting in awe at the spectacle of this band forging recognizable tunes from explosive ingredients. Wareham’s saxophone playing has plenty of company in this six-piece ensemble. Fellow sax player Shabaka Hutchings, whose other project, Sons of Kemet, has produced one of the year’s greatest albums, adds an element of unpredictability to the band. Tom Skinner plays drums well enough to keep up with and secure the rest of the band’s experimentation.

That is to say, he performs admirably under pressure. Satin Singh, another percussionist, and Kushal Gaya, whose punk-inspired vocals lend the music a more human face, round out the band. Leafcutter John produces the band’s work and adds his own electronic fireworks. Though the band’s rhythms might be too intense and demanding to be deemed danceable, it is certainly plausible that some brave souls could attempt this feat.

Tracks like “Fix My Life,” “Tuna” and “Free Walk” exemplify the band’s approach to crafting a song. Because the band’s activity is anchored in strong bass and drum grooves, the songs stay fixed in a recognizable form despite the experimental instrumentation and production.

Fortunately, Leafcutter John’s work in the studio accentuates the positive, giving the drums real depth, the voices a haunting resonance and the saxophone assaults a strong energetic pulse. The textures of the songs are shifting and strange, but do not sacrifice clarity.

In this, Melt Yourself Down is truly a successful synthesis of jazzy experimentation with more traditional musical approaches. Another song, “Kingdom of Kush,” puts Gaya’s vocals at the forefront, building from a saxophone riff and piling on drum parts and an infectious bass line. The vocalist’s words snap and form just as much of the rhythm as the percussion. At one point, the drums drop out and the saxophones carry on the groove by themselves. In a structure often seen in dance music, the rest of the sounds come flooding back in, giving Gaya a platform for more abrasive vocalizations and bizarre shimmering effects. This gives the band’s music a psychedelic edge despite it not falling into the stereotypes associated with that musical scene. Far-ranging and intense, it nonetheless can be every bit as mind-melting as the haziest Animal Collective song.

Additionally, while the album’s lyrics are mostly indecipherable, the band and its music embody a kind of urgency that touches on political aspects. Formed by a diverse group of musicians in the heart of London, the former center of a global empire, it demonstrates the positive unintended consequences of mostly destructive colonization and imperialism. The product of a post-colonial cultural mixing, Melt Yourself Down shows the beauty of collaboration among many sorts of people as well as sounding precisely as chaotic as such an encounter should.

I can unreservedly recommend Melt Yourself Down to anyone. While its sound is decidedly left-field, its intensity and raw force make it an intoxicating listen for those who approach it with a sense of discovery. This is close to something I would call “tiger jazz,” probably the highest compliment I can pay to any music.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

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Really, the tagline should be (Don’t) Let Go.

Dana Stevens, the film critic over at Slate, aptly articulates the primary virtue of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest work:

“Cuarón and his longtime cinematographer, the wizardly Emmanuel Lubezki, have created a screen space that’s not only 3-D but convincingly polarity-free, with no solid sense of what’s up or down, background or foreground.”

The spatial depth of the film, made more literal than my usual film experience because I viewed Gravity through polarized 3D glasses, is a sight to behold. The sublimity of space provokes a reaction oscillating between horror and awe. When we look into space, we see a starry void, and our perspective will determine whether we fixate on the flickering light or the depths of the emptiness. Thrust against this backdrop, the characters in the film confront not only the dialectical tension between the horror and beauty of space but also that of holding on and letting go. These commingling oppositions, meanwhile, can be thought of as pointing to the great human crisis, that of living in the midst of the knowledge of death. Space, when not stripped of its silent monumentality, serves as a perfect projection screen for these dramatic conflicts.

Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney’s Matthew Kowalski are the human players, astronauts who are cast adrift from their shuttle by whirling space debris. In between bouts of chaos brought on by the satellite junk, the film settles into more contemplative rhythms, though the tension never abates. Within the film, Dr. Stone serves as both a dejected mother figure–she had a daughter who, significantly, died in a fall–and as a child. Contained within various womblike spaces, at one point curling into a fetal position, and often breathing in a belaboured way, she embodies the trauma of life’s beginning and end. In a sense, the film’s whole (downward) arc can be summarized in the story of the daughter’s death. She slipped, fell, and died. This is reenacted through the film as Bullock’s character attempts to fall to Earth in the same way. She finds herself suspended in a hostile, lonely world, a kind of heaven, but pines for home. The final shots of the film, where she is washed ashore clutching beach sand, illustrates what I like to call Gravity’s inversion of 2001. Where Kubrick’s masterpiece chronicles the rise of humanity into space and its eventual transcendence, Cuarón, through his womb imagery and the figure of the mother, tethers us explicitly to Gaia, mother Earth. This is where the double nature of the film’s title comes into play. Gravity is normally thought of as that which pulls us down to Earth, making us fall. It is more properly thought of, though, as that which binds everything together. Binding and falling, therefore, are perfect themes for a film with this title to explore.

Complicating this situation is the film’s other major–and overly explained–theme of letting go. After all, when a child is born, the umbilical cord has to be cut. And you will grow weary of the constant umbilical imagery in the tim, from oxygen tubes to parachute cables, each of which has to be severed in order for Dr. Stone to stay alive. These cuts are all traumatic yet necessary to the (re)birth of Stone into real life. Through masterful shots juxtaposing Earth with the limitless reach of space, we come to long for the beauty of the blue planet. No matter the transcendent potential of the vast universe, home is still home.

At the same time, this connection to Earth is the source of the film’s undoing. Blanketed with swelling strings and buoyed by on-the-nose inspirational speeches, the characters lose their distinctiveness and instead function as stand-ins. Bullock and Clooney perform well, but the script fails them in that it tries to make explicit that which was already clear in the visuals. A harrowing stay in a Soyuz escape pod represents the film’s nadir as it laboriously ticks all the boxes in Stone’s transition from despair to renewed hope. Really, Cuarón, it’s quite enough that she has to use the landing rockets to propel herself forward, but you thought we needed not one but a few speeches to hammer the point home. The haunting imagery is frequently undone through poor sound design that, while it makes good use of the lack of sound in space for dramatic effect, tends to foreground explosive booms and astronaut chatter rather than silence. Perhaps too much silence would have been oppressive or dreadful; yet that is precisely the point.

Not every film has to be minimalistic or subtle. Those are not even traits I usually find too appealing, since I appreciate well-used excess and spectacle. On the other hand, the excesses of Gravity all work to its detriment, turning what would have been an unassuming profundity into a labored exercise. Despite these unneeded additions, Gravity succeeds spectacularly as a work of filmmaking. I am eager to write more about it, so expect additional writing in the future. Simultaneously impressive and disappointing, I am sure it will yield much productive analysis and discussion in the future.

CHVRCHES: The Bones of What You Believe

chvrches-the-bones-of-what-you-believe

Contemporary music culture of an accessibly underground sort, embodied in web form by publications like Pitchfork, the AV Club, and Slant, tends to be identified with indie rock music. For nearly a decade, that genre has connoted more cerebral and introspective music, increasingly apolitical and self-reflexive.

Another vital current in this culture, however, and one that is less covered, has been this culture’s embrace of dance music. This dance music, moreover, has always had a more political edge. Groups like The Knife, LCD Soundsystem, and Grimes have put the body–and the body politic–back at center of their music. CHVRCHES, hailing from Glasgow, Scotland, has just released its first record, “The Bones of What You Believe,” after mounting hype has sent them from an obscure group to a band on a sold-out tour in less than a year. This debut is both appealing and ephemeral, placing it on a different–and lesser–plane than its closest partners in synthpop.

Lead singer Lauren Mayberry’s vocals are highly redolent of Purity Ring’s Megan James, and they employ a similar palette of synths to that Canadian group. Her lyrics are mostly soprano put-downs of loved ones, not exactly adventurous subject matter. Where CHVRCHES sets itself apart is in its preference for pop grandeur and soaring melodies. First track and premier single “The Mother We Share” illustrates this well. Neither the best nor the catchiest song on the album, it is nonetheless the track that has caught the most attention on the Internet. Dominated by its chorus, the song is a series of short buildups to massive and prolonged releases. This is an effective approach, but the first half of the album, where the band is at its poppiest, is also comparatively the weaker half. This is especially evident after the first three tracks, which are much stronger than “Tether” and “Lies,” the two to follow. The latter, especially, seems too much like a collection of sounds and moments we already heard; its stuttering voices, anthemic chorus, and general structure feel too familiar.

The best tracks on the album come late. Without sacrificing immediacy, “Science/Visions” and “Lungs” inject much-needed energy into the proceedings. The former is driven by a straight house beat, probably the most danceable to be found on “Bones,” and “Lungs” shines in its effective use of sharp synth effects to heighten the emotions of the romantically tense song.

What we have in The Bones of What You Believe is an album with a surplus of immediate pleasures. Glossy production leaves few rough edges, and every track is perfectly listenable. Moreover, the album is well-arranged and the songs are distinctive and hold up well on their own. What works against the album is that it is divided against itself. The tension between the poppier first half and darker, more danceable second half is neither intriguing nor productive but rather confounding. This might indicate that CHVRCHES is stronger at producing shorter EPs and singles at this point, as they lack the sort of grand overarching vision that you get from The Knife or Grimes.

3 Burst Reviews

Slight twinge in my fingers indicates that I have been writing and reading too much. Tigers aren’t built for this kind of work, and I have had my arm in one of those carpal tunnel casts for a solid week. I have a demanding muse, which is a less obvious way of saying I want to fill everything with knowledge. Tigers have short lifespans, and I have already died and escaped it once. But with a cloudy sky and a government shut down, there seem to be fewer limits. All my human friends are busy studying out of obligation. It’s a good day for music and sound.

Mr. Harold Zo: Allow me to help!

Alexius: Shut up, Mr. Zo.

Mr. Harold Zo: (crestfallen)

Alexius: You…no, this is a family blog. Let me just say that you are a worm. Get what you’re about to do done with already.

Quivver: Harry! We’re getting ready to pack up!

Mr. Harold Zo: (swishes his rock and roll wizard cape) I will vanish as the night before the dawn.

Alexius: The sun has been up for hours, Count Dracula. Do you want to write something or not?

Mr. Harold Zo: Allow me to do a little burst of recommendation. Here are three albums your audience will love.

these-new-puritans-field-of-reeds

 

I appreciate that Field of Reeds evokes works with both field recordings and studio manipulation, growing and changing in a naturalistic way while bending sound into obscure shapes and spaces. Those looking for a blissful, composed 53 minutes of music could find few better than this among the summer releases.

a0800371576_10

 

Melt Yourself Down takes the opposite approach to Field of Reeds. Rather than tending space and slowly warping, the law here is constant, fiery reshaping. Rhythmic and incessantly visceral, it’s a layering of funk grooves, psychedelic production, and a jazzlike commitment to productively messing up. It’s a sharp command, not a request: melt down.

Headless

Legend has it that Spiro Agnew called the label to have this album’s promotional efforts shut down. Which is a shame, because Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is a beautifully apocalyptic work in the full sense of that word. Far from specious end-times fortunetelling, this is music with an iron conviction and musical power endemic to that era’s funk. That being the case, it also offers an explicit rebuke to those who think that dancing alone can start the revolution. Not to criticize too much, Janelle Monáe, but I think he’s talking to you.

That’s all. I have to run for our first Canadian tour, so I will be in touch.

Alexius: Just one day of peace. That’s all I request.

awoo!

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Historical DeWitticisms: Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

Solarpunk Anarchist

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Cindy Milstein

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Revolutionary Anamnesis

Anamnesis is a Platonic theory of knowledge that posits the soul's ability to recollect the things it knew in past incarnations, or an eternal knowledge, recovered through reasoning.

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● contemporary and critical political theory ● public anthropology ● (anti) imperialism and (anti) militarization ● class struggle ● political economy and world-systems theory ● hegemony and academia ● revolution ● rebellion ● resistance ● protest ● activism ● advocacy ● critique ● etc.

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