Listening Post (Marillion Edition)

Marillion misplaced

I think any good music fan has one band that they love but that they’re vaguely embarrassed of. So it is with Marillion. They’re one of the most ridiculous bands ever, yet I have an enduring affection for them that’s lasted almost 25 years. I was given a cassette copy of their debut, Script for a Jester’s Tear, by an older friend when I was a freshman in high school. If I had been familiar with Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, I would have immediately recognized whose style and sound the band was biting, but because the only Genesis I knew at the time was the one that sang “Invisible Touch,” Marillion seemed revolutionary. Those keyboards! Those guitar solos! That facepaint! Their music was all capes and 20-minute songs about Beowulf‘s Grendel, but to a 15-year-old kid in rural Ohio who hadn’t yet grown out of comic books and Dungeons & Dragons, it was a doorway to a strange new pretentious world. And the fact that I was sponging this up in 1988, at the exact same time I was discovering Hüsker Dü and the Pixies and the Replacements and R.E.M. via new albums is a testament to how weirdly exciting it was to be a fledgling music fan in the late 80’s.

Anyway.

What is there to say about this album, their third? I feel like if I write too much about it it’s going to topple under the weight of its own preposterousness. I mean, just look at that cover, for starters. I guess I’ll say this: it’s the best starting point to the band because it’s the one where singer and lyricist Fish (what seems like a dopey pseudonym until you realize his real name is Derek Dick) started to reign in some of his more over-the-top sensibilities. Their first two albums (the aforementioned Script… and 1984’s Fugazi) consist of seriously unhinged (and stupidly great) prog-rock goofiness. You know what I mean: songs that regularly clock in at the 7- and 8-minute mark, endless widdly guitar solos, KEYBOARDS KEYBOARDS KEYBOARDS, and pretentious lyrics about garden parties and the Irish Republican Army.

But there’s something to it. Misplaced Childhood, released in 1985, is an impenetrable song cycle about – I think – delayed maturity, lost love, and regret. And child soldiers? Whatever the case, the album had their first proper hit, the lovely “Kayleigh” and the even lovelier piano-led “Lavender,” and there’s three or four other songs on the album that could have been hits, especially “Childhood’s End?,” which features guitarist Steve Rothery’s soaring, quasi-U2 lead. The band always had an unerring sense for melody (even when it was buried in a seemingly unending epic), and it was on this album that they simplified things enough so that those melodies could breathe. “Simplified” is a relative term in Marillion Land, of course, because the album itself, in true song cycle fashion, is one unbroken piece of music, with each song flowing seamlessly into the next. Even so, the individual tracks are some of the strongest, catchiest things in the band’s career.

Fish’s lyrics, too, are exceptionally vivid. I’ve poked fun at his more outré tendencies, but the guy has an undeniable gift for language. “Kayleigh” gives us lines like “chalk hearts melting on a playground wall,” and “Lavender” opens with the resonant image of sprinklers on summer lawns and children “running through the rainbows.” Then again, the album’s first song drifts in on a Spïnal Tap-worthy keyboard line and the first words we hear are, “Huddled in the safety of a pseudo silk kimono /Wearing bracelets of smoke, naked of understanding,” so what do I know?

But despite the inescapable silliness of some of this, Misplaced Childhood still stands up for me as a quality collection of songs. There’s the tribal drumming and spy-movie tendencies of “Waterhole,” the chiming shards of guitar (guitarist Rothery is sort of a marvel) that sparkle throughout closer “White Feather” (an ode to self-determination, with Fish singing, “I will swear I have no nation/But I’m proud to own my heart”), and even the 9-minute, multi-part “Blind Curve” doesn’t overstay its welcome thanks to the hummable melodies that serve as its foundation. This clearly isn’t for everyone, and you have to enter into it with the understanding that it’s going to be a little … grandiose. But after all these years I still can’t quite shake the feeling that this is better than I think it is.

Next steps: I can’t in good conscience recommend their first two albums. I like them, but they’re definitely an acquired taste. If Misplaced Childhood turns out to be your thing, you’d do well to listen to its follow-up, 1987’s Clutching at Straws, which I almost selected for this edition of the Listening Post. It’s another confident set, with some of Fish’s best lyrics. He would leave after that album, though, embarking on a mildly successful (in Europe, at least) solo career. The band continued with new vocalist Steve Hogarth, and they’re still soldiering on to this day. I don’t like the Hogarth stuff nearly as well, but his first album with the band, 1989’s Season’s End, is quite good and worth your time (especially if you have a thing for beer commercial guitars).  1998’s Radiation is probably my favorite of this second iteration of the band, and it features “A Few Words for the Dead,” a song that builds to a euphoric chorus that never fails to raise the hairs on my arms and put a lump in my throat.  I think the video is worth a watch because I love the song so much, but if you click it you can either sit through the first two minutes of widdly-widdly noodling or else skip straight to 2:20 when the song actually begins.

Harmony Around My Table

Rollins

One of the weird things about being a music fan – not a casual fan, but a “this is how I make sense of my life” fan – is that certain artists will always be present across the years, even though you’re not necessarily a huge fan of their work.  They flit in and out, you occasionally listen to an album, it registers when they release something new (although you probably won’t buy it), and when their latest tour comes to town, you at least check ticket prices in case it’s happening on a night when nothing good is on TV.

Henry Rollins is that guy for me.

Rollins 2I definitely don’t dislike his work (and he’d probably punch me if I said I did), but it’s just never quite clicked with me.  At the dawn of my voracious music phase (a phase that’s now lasted 27 years), where I was crazily tracking down influences of influences of influences of that week’s new favorite band, I discovered Black Flag’s Damaged album.  I didn’t know what to do with it.  I was mopey, but not angry.  I appreciated humor, but couldn’t figure out how to interpret “TV Party” against the backdrop of Rollins’ supposed straightedge lifestyle.  I liked stuff with an edge, but didn’t exactly connect with the sludgy aggression of what I was told was a landmark album.

So I just sort of let it slide on past on my way to Echo & The Bunnymen or whatever.  I revisited his work a few years later when he had a minor college radio hit as frontman of The Rollins Band with “Low Self Opinion.”  I certainly connected with the song lyrically, and musically it was a little more melodic than Black Flag, but it was hard to escape the fact that it was unseemly for a grown man to be singing about such things – what I imagine David Cross would call “15-year-old white girl lyrics.”

For a while, Rollins and I didn’t see much of each other.  I read his work when it appeared in various publications, and I was intrigued by his transition away from music and into spoken-word performance, but even as my musical palate expanded, there was never a point where I thought, “It’s time to immerse myself once again in the Black Flag oeuvre.”

Rollins CoachellaBut I never wrote him off, even though his music never quite did it for me.  His spoken-word material was too smart, too funny, and too relatable for me to discount him.  This was reinforced by his 2009 performance at Coachella.  If I’m going to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of it except that it was sharp, clever, and much better than I was expecting.  What I do remember is that he made a point of emphasizing that all the people at Coachella, whether they were at his set or not, were part of the same tribe.  By virtue of traveling to the desert to immerse ourselves in good music, we had more in common with each other than we realized.  I don’t think that’s true of Coachella anymore – the target audience has sadly shifted away from the music fan to the L.A. teenybopper douchebag who wants only to be seen at the party – but Rollins’ sentiment resonated.  As one of only a handful of people at my high school seriously into independent music, I understood the value of finding like-minded friends.  And I especially appreciated Rollins’ Coachella set because it was at this point that I recognized him for what he really was: a fan.  No more, no less.

This was reinforced by an article he wrote last week for LA Weekly.  I encourage anyone who’s trying to understand the music obsessive in his or her life to read this article.  It’s a little rambling and discursive, but at one point Rollins articulates simply and truthfully why I think many of us listen to – and buy – as much music as we do.

I buy records because I medicate with music. It makes the day-to-day horror show of existence endurable . . . I am less an audiophile than I am a vinyl cat lady. You can never have too many records – aren’t they all just so wonderful?

I think I’m often viewed by friends and acquaintances as simply a collector, the Crazy Music Guy™ who has a lot of records.  But I can’t stress this enough: music saved my life.  I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school.  I was struggling to come to grips with who I was.  I felt unpopular and unattractive.  I know I’m not unique in these feelings – I probably just described everyone who’s ever been a teenager – but music is the way I survived.  I knew when I was feeling down I could listen to The Smiths and take solace in the fact that Morrissey felt the same way I did.  I could listen to R.E.M. and be comforted by the arty weirdos from exotic Athens, GA, or put on The Joshua Tree and think about how I could help U2 save the world.  Was I self-destructive?  I don’t know.  I’ve got almost 30 years in the rearview mirror, which makes it a little hard to say, but, yeah – my parents probably should have been concerned.  The point, though, just like Rollins says, is that music was my medication, my therapy.  I owe it a debt I can never repay.

And, while the circumstances are different, I still use it to medicate.  My feelings of inadequacy linger, they’re just different now: I’m crap at my job, I should be a kinder person, I need to write more, I’m not being all I should be for my students, and on and on.  At home, in my car, at the office, right now – music is playing nearly all the time, and it helps me get through the day.  I enjoy the music on an aesthetic level, of course – that is, after all, my primary concern – but there’s undoubtedly a therapeutic value to it, too.  It isn’t just a tune to whistle as I idle away the time.

Music matters.

At a time when vinyl records have become just another hipster affectation, it’s important for those of us who depend on music to make sense of the world to periodically remind people that, at its best, music transcends entertainment.  Henry Rollins, vinyl cat lady proclivities notwithstanding, makes a convincing case for that.  And in doing so, he reminds me that some musicians will always be there for us, whether we ask them to be or not.

*****

Current listening:

Fugazi end

Fugazi – End Hits (1998)

Join the Dots

Flyingcircus_2I’ve written a lot over the years about just how crucial it was to my developing personality to discover independent music when I was 15 years old, and I’ve undoubtedly worn out my welcome writing about how Stephen King was a flashpoint for so much of what I’ve done with my life.  One area that’s gone oddly unexplored – even though it’s easily as important as those other two – is comedy.  Mirroring what happened for me with R.E.M. and Stephen King, I got into comedy in a fairly heavy way as a freshman in high school, and it unequivocally shaped the way I looked at the world.

There were three names that loomed over the others, all of which I discovered in less than a year.  George Carlin came first.  My parents had a vinyl copy of Occupation: Fooleand once they decided I was old enough to handle it, I wore out the grooves listening to his “Filthy Words” bit.  Next came Steve Martin.  I’m sure I was aware of him on some level before high school (probably as the King Tut guy from Saturday Night Live), but my first viewing of The Jerk hit me at just the right time. I made quick work of the rest of his filmography, and I also got my hands on his standup album Let’s Get Small, which, in its deconstruction of the genre, stood as sort of a counterpoint to the polish of Occupation: Foole.  Carlin and Martin both taught me that comedy could be smart and principled, but also simultaneously irreverent and idealistic.  I gravitated toward the anti-authoritarian vibe they both clearly possessed, but also responded to Martin’s romantic streak and Carlin’s strong undercurrent of optimism.  They were (and still are) two artists whose work I hold dear.

And then came Monty Python. My friend John (two years older than me and also responsible for turning me on to the band Marillion, more on which some other day) introduced me to Monty Python & the Holy Grail, and my world was never the same.

monty-python-and-the-holy-grail-bts

The absurdity, but also the undeniable intelligence, was worlds away from anything else I’d seen at the time.  I wasn’t sheltered by any means, but my parents’ tastes always ran to the conventional.  Growing up it was a steady diet of whatever sitcoms were popular (Three’s Company, The Facts of Life), and if I ever saw R-rated comedies, it was only the edited versions on network TV.  So while I’d seen Caddyshack, Airplane!, and National Lampoon’s Vacation, I hadn’t really seen them, if you know what I mean.

To suddenly watch Graham Chapman come galloping over a hill followed by a servant banging two coconuts together was a total paradigm shift.  You mean . . . this was possible?  And there was more of it?  John quickly became my supplier.  He passed me VHS copies of Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life, and episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus he’d recorded from the local PBS station.  Our library had a copy of And Now for Something Completely Different, and I watched that, too, even though I’d already seen most the sketches.  I became that nerd (in addition to all the other nerds I already was), repeating catchphrases ad nauseam to the annoyance of friends, family, and teachers.  I was obsessed.

Just like it was with The Beatles, everyone has their favorite Python.  For me, it’s always been John Cleese.  He always seemed like the smartest in the troupe (although Michael Palin ran a close second), and I appreciated the fact that he could do both verbal humor (“Argument Clinic”) and physical humor (“Ministry of Silly Walks”) with equal facility.  What I tapped into most of all, though, as an angsty little guy who didn’t have a firm grasp on his emotions, was the deep reservoir of rage that seemed to be coursing just below the surface of Cleese’s aloof British exterior.  In many of his sketches there’s the impression that he’s just barely holding it together.  “The Parrot Sketch” is probably the most well-known example of this, although I think “The Architects Sketch” is where he does some of his best work.  Cleese plays the title character, pitching an abattoir to two stuffy business types who really want a block of flats.  Watch the build until the glorious explosion at the 3:00 mark.

Cleese would, of course, turn “slow burn escalating to a tirade” into an art form in Fawlty Towers which is, for me, the Sistine Chapel of British comedy.

In my late teens and early 20s, as I got more involved with improv and sketch comedy, Cleese sort of became the Platonic ideal of how to mix low and high comedy.  Or maybe it was more that he illustrated how to do low comedy with intelligence and high comedy with a visceral edge.  Most importantly, I can draw a straight line from Cleese to many of my current favorite comedians (Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Louis C.K., Kyle Kinane, Paul F. Tompkins, etc.), all of whom seem to be spiritual descendants of what Cleese was doing in the 1960s and 70s.

Tonight Amanda and I go see Cleese’s tour with fellow Python Eric Idle.  Most shows I attend for a relaxing night out.  A few others, though, are more about paying tribute to the people who, even from a great distance, taught me how to be me.

IMG_0490

*****

Current listening:

World harmlessness

The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness (2015)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 4: Fjadrargljufur to Egilsstaðir, via the Eastfjords)

DSC_0165

And so the intrepid explorers pressed on from Fjadrargljufur, armed only with their GPS and a semi-stale handful of nut mix left over from Pingvillir.    We made it to Kirkjubæjarklaustur around lunch time.  This was a scheduled stop, although once Amanda and I arrived we weren’t entirely sure why.  It was a cute(ish) little area, but to call it a town would be stretching the definition of the word.  It did, however, have a decent-looking restaurant, Systrakaffi, so rather than settle for more gas station food – what were we, barbarians? – we pulled in for a bite to eat.

Let’s talk about fermented shark.  It’s one of those dishes we’d always heard about and, yeah, okay, been warned against trying.  But c’mon – how bad could it be?  It’s only shark that’s been stored in a hole in the ground for three months then cut into strips and hung up to dry for six more.  The waitress’ funny look when I ordered it should have been a hint as to what we were getting ourselves into.  And then she brought it out.  There were no immediate red flags.  It was in cubes, looking sort of like a cheese plate, with a shot of Brennevin, Iceland’s native liquor, on the side.  It didn’t look disgusting, but its reputation couldn’t be denied.

“So . . . how do we eat this?” There might have been a note of panic in my voice.

The waitress laughed. “You take a bite of the shark, chew very fast, then drink the Brennevin to take away the taste of the shark.”

With that glowing endorsement, we tucked in.

It was awful: overwhelmingly fishy, hard to chew and even harder to swallow.  And the Brennevin wasn’t much better.  As I choked it down I detected notes of turpentine and death.  But Amanda and I toughed it out and ate our cubes of rotten shark like the gullible tourists we are.

DSC_0040Once we were sure our lunch would stay down, it was a quick drive over to an odd little geological curiosity: Kirkjugolf (which translates into English as “church floor”).  It looks phony, like someone put down some asymmetrical tile in the middle of a field and then took a permanent smoke break.  But it’s actually a relative of the basalt columns of Reynisfjara (see Part 3).  The difference is that the columns of Kirkjugolf are underground, and we’re just seeing the tops.  Nifty!

It was approaching mid-afternoon by this point, and we knew we had a decent drive ahead of us to get to Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon, and then at least another hour past that to our guesthouse in Höfn.  All of which I mention only to explain my one regret of the trip.  We made a quick stop at Skaftafell National Park, mainly to see Svartifoss, the park’s signature waterfall, which is flanked by more basalt columns.  But by the time we reached the park and saw that it was a mile-plus hike to the falls we knew it was a non-starter.  So on we went, Svartifoss-less.  I won’t even look at the picture, but I include a link here so you can see what we missed.

As we made the drive across the southern part of the country toward Jökulsárlón, the landscape changed again.  We were crossing right at the base of the Vatnajökull glacier, so it was on this leg of the drive that we were seeing a stark demarcation between the lava fields and the glacier.

DSC_0065

And then we got to Jökulsárlón itself, and suddenly it didn’t seem so tragic that we’d missed Svartifoss.  Formed by the retreat of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, this glacial lagoon is one of the most majestic and distinctly foreign things we saw on the trip.

DSC_0068

DSC_0107One thing these pictures can’t convey is just how cold it was at Jökulsárlón.  In the space of an hour we went from temperatures in the mid-60s at Skaftafell to what had to be the low 40s at the glacial lagoon.  But we still hung around for a bit, taking pictures and just sort of trying to process the enormity of what we were seeing before deciding that even with the cold it would be foolish to pass up the chance for a boat tour.  So we booked our tickets, climbed into the “boat,” and pushed off into the lagoon.  There’s really no way to do it justice in words, so I’ll just drop in some photos and rest assured that they’ll convey the experience better than I could.  The trip continues on the other side of the picture break.

DSC_0105

DSC_0099

DSC_0104

DSC_0082

DSC_0114As soon as we were off the boat, we high-tailed it along the Ring Road to Höfn, a seaside town for which the word quaint was apparently coined.  We got there pushing 8:00 p.m., and the town had largely closed up for the night.  Höfn’s few restaurants, however, were doing a booming business (no matter where we went in Iceland, dinner service didn’t really start to pick up until about 8:00 in the evening), but we finally managed to find a table at Kaffi Hornid.  We probably should have had something with langoustine (a lobster-like crustacean that’s apparently the local speciality), but after our long day, neither of us were in the mood to work for our meal.  After dinner and a walk around town, we stopped briefly for drinks at Pakkhus, a beautiful little restaurant on the harbor, and then retreated to our guesthouse so we could rest up for next day’s drive to the Eastfjords.

Here’s what you need to know about the Eastfjords: they’re beautiful but repetitive.  All the fishing towns that dotted our route sort of looked like this from a distance . . .

DSC_0191

. . . and this close up …

DSC_0113

. . . so rather than give you a blow-by-blow of all the little towns we drove through on the way to Egilsstaðir, I’ll provide instead some highlights that don’t really fit anywhere else.

IMG_0344In Breiðdalsvík we experienced our first Icelandic hotdog (or pylsur).  I don’t know how appetizing it looks to the uninitiated, and I fully realize what I’m about to say is tantamount to heresy, but Icelandic hotdogs beat American hotdogs hands down, full stop, every day of the week and twice on Sunday.  Some of it has to do with the dog itself, which is made mostly from lamb.  Some of it is the condiments: raw onions, fried onions, sweet brown mustard, and remoulade.  The real secret weapon, surprisingly, is that the condiments go under the dog.  The result is that you get a satisfying bite with all the ingredients rather than having it slop all over the place like the pylsur’s American counterpart.  We sampled Icelandic hot dogs at every opportunity, and they never disappointed.

IMG_0357Icelandic beer, on the other hand, was underwhelming.  My favorite of the four in the photo to the right was the Einstök toasted porter: a rich beer with coffee and chocolate accents that generally ticked all the boxes I look for in a dark beer (Einstök also does a pale ale and a white ale and a couple seasonal brews).  The other three were serviceable, but largely interchangeable and nothing special.  Do you like Heineken or Stella Artois?  If so, you’ll like Viking, Gull, or Vatnajökull.  Fun fact: Beer with an ABV higher than 2.25% was banned in Iceland until 1989.  This is one of the only ways the U.S. has ever been more progressive than Iceland.

One driving oddity that we experienced a lot on the Ring Road, but especially in the Eastfjords, was the one-lane bridge.

Bridge

For whatever reason, most bridges – even the big ones – were one lane wide.  This wasn’t a big deal as long as nothing was coming in the other direction.  But if a car was headed our way, there was a little bit of jockeying for position to determine who was closer to the bridge entrance and therefore got to cross first, while the other car pulled off to the side.  As with most things Icelandic, these were the most polite games of chicken ever played.

Up next: Snowmageddon!

DSC_0193

*****

Current listening:

National high

The National – High Violet (2010)

Listening Post (Kitchens of Distinction Edition)

Kitchens strange

Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way: it’s a dreadful name. Let’s acknowledge it and get past it so we can focus on the music, which is pretty remarkable.

When you think about great bands from the shoegaze era you understandably think about the big three: My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive. Maybe if you’re feeling generous you throw in Chapterhouse. Lush, too. But Kitchens of Distinction (hereafter referred to as “KOD”), despite a couple moderate-sized hits, flew under the radar and are generally unremembered and unmentioned from this time period. This makes some sense because the band were a little out of step with their contemporaries. Where MBV, Ride, and Slowdive are pretty affectless, burying their vocals under torrents of noise (which is great, don’t get me wrong) and eschewing anything resembling a personality, KOD were unabashedly optimistic and romantic, singer/bassist Patrick Fitzgerald’s vocals front and center. And where other musically like-minded bands boasted lyrics that were often little more than impressionistic fragments, Fitzgerald, as an openly gay man, often tackled tales of love and regret and didn’t make an effort to mask his own sexuality (Strange Free World‘s “Gorgeous Love” opens with the lines “I can feel the waves of your gorgeous love/And it hurts to think that this is seen as wrong,” and on their next album they would release “Breathing Fear,” a song about gay-bashing, as its first single).

It might be this markedly different approach to songwriting and performance that saw KOD kept at arm’s length from My Bloody Valentine and the rest of the shoegaze canon. This is a shame, because Strange Free World easily holds its own with the best albums from the era, and in Julian Swales the band had a guitarist that was – whisper it – every bit the equal of his more highly-esteemed peers, MBV’s Kevin Shields included. Swales, truthfully, is the band’s trump card, and the guitars onStrange Free World are nothing short of magical. At the time this album was released in 1991 I hadn’t yet heard of My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive (Strange Free World actually predates both Loveless and Just for a Day), and while I owned (and loved) Ride’s Nowhere, Swales’ layered, echoing guitar seemed otherworldly.

Opener “Railwayed” was, to this kid growing up in Cowtown, Ohio, revelatory, and it still sounds fresh. We get five brief seconds of drums and bass before Swales’ shimmering guitar soars in over the top of it, floating above Fitzgerald’s plaintive vocal. The song’s chorus is both a euphoric cloudburst and a hell of a calling card for the rest of an album that doesn’t stint on ambition or beauty. In fact, I’m finding it’s hard to write about this album without resorting to all those hoary old clichés: chiming sonic cathedrals and all that. But holy cow – that guitar. It continues into the second track, “Quick as Rainbows,” which is buoyed along on layered acoustic and electric guitars before erupting in its final minute into a buzzing storm of effects. “Hypnogogic” ups the ante further, relying on Fitzgerald’s bass and vocal to carry the melody while Swales pulls double duty: he cushions the vocal with a droning curtain of guitar that lurks in the background while simultaneously etching abstract filigrees of sound over the top. I love this stuff.

My limited vocabulary shouldn’t be read to imply that this is all just abstract beauty. The melodies are strong, Fitzgerald’s voice is expressive and occasionally conversational, and there’s hidden muscle to a few of these songs. “Polaroids” is a lament for lost time and squandered opportunity that builds over its five minutes until dissolving in an angry flurry of distortion and pounding drums. “Aspray” works similarly, Fitzgerald relying on abstract aquatic imagery while Swales’ guitar mimics the angry surf in the lyrics. And if anyone knows their music, it’s probably for “Drive That Fast,” a song that got some play on MTV’s 120 Minutes. It’s not my favorite on the album (that would go to “Quick as Rainbows”), but it’s close. Fitzgerald’s high-pitched bass once again drives the song while Swales’ guitar is off doing typically astonishing stuff in the background. But again, it’s a forceful tune. Fitzgerald sings, “Take me away from these simple feelings/I know there’s places on the other sides of here,” and Swales helps the listener see just what he’s singing about.

“Under the Sky, Inside the Sea” is a stunning closer, a sun-dappled beauty that begins with a quietly loping bassline and builds to a crescendo of guitar, horns, and Fitzgerald’s vocal: “The sea eats the shore it’s always hungry/We fall from laughing at the size of it all/Drinking, wishing, smoking, hoping/He says, ‘Well, here we are at the edge of the world.'” Gorgeous.

I just can’t do the album justice. My love for it might have a lot to do with it hitting me at just the right time. For a kid just figuring out all that late-teenage identity stuff, Fitzgerald’s plainspoken romanticism got to me on some elemental level. And I’d just never heard anything like Swales’ guitar before. But I think it’s more than just “right place, right time.” Like yesterday’s pick, I still listen to this album regularly and continually find new things about it to love. It really has to be heard to be appreciated.

Next steps: If you like Strange Free World, their first and third albums (Love Is Hell and The Death of Cool) are the most worth seeking out. Their final release (Cowboys and Aliens) has a few good songs – opener “Sand on Fire” is a barn-burner – but is easily the weakest of the four.  The band reunited briefly in 2013 to release Folly, an album that doesn’t fully recapture the magic of their early days but is enough of a reminder to make it worth your time.

Cinema Sunday (10/18/15)

Crimson peak“It is a monstrous love.  And it makes monsters of us all…”

There is nothing subtle about Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak.  Every aspect of it, from the sweeping score to the elaborate costumes to the ornate set design to the gruesome climax, is elevated, ecstatic, and over the top.  Some people have seemed surprised by this, as though the director of Blade II and Hellboy has been all about nuance in the rest of his career.  Nope – what Crimson Peak is above all else is a glorious throwback to the extravagantly gothic horror movies of the 1950s and 60s., and to criticize it for being obvious is like criticizing water for being wet.  Even the movie’s big “twist” is telegraphed early, and the fun of the movie isn’t in the (nonexistent) surprise, but in knowing what’s coming and seeing how a master filmmaker plays his instrument to get us there.

Some plot: It’s Buffalo, New York, at the cusp of the twentieth century.  Edith Cushing (and there’s no way that surname is an accident, given Peter Cushing’s prominent role in the horror films of Hammer Studios, which del Toro clearly adores) is an aspiring writer whose father Carter, a prominent businessman, views her aspirations with a sort of patronizing back-handed encouragement (he gifts her a pen, but is less excited when she tells him she wants to use a typewriter to mask her gender to potential publishers).  When Thomas Sharpe and his sister, Lucille, arrive in Buffalo from England to find investors for Thomas’ invention to mine clay, Edith is quickly taken with the dapper Englishman (and he with her).

Crimson PeakThings happen.  A lot of things.  A lot of slow things.  This isn’t a criticism as much as a warning.  Those expecting to walk into a fast-paced, whiz-bang, thrill-a-minute phantasmagoria will be disappointed.  Del Toro takes his sweet old time to establish character, back story, and setting.  I liked it.  Many won’t.  It reminded me in some ways of the beginning of The Exorcist, where not much happens for a while in the service of world-building. There’s the courtship between Edith and Thomas.  There’s the pitch Thomas makes to Edith’s father.  There’s the lovelorn (and Carter-endorsed) McMichael, a friend of the family who pines after Edith. There’s a subplot with a private detective.  There’s a mysterious murder.  But none of it is scary and all of it appears to be in direct contradiction of the movie’s ad campaign, which paints the movie as a Gargantuan Thrill Machine.™

Crimson peak 2Instead, as Edith arrives at Allerdale Hall in rural England as Sharpe’s new bride, we get more slow burn.  Only this time, instead of exposition, it’s all in aid of amping up the creep factor.  See, Allerdale – nicknamed Crimson Peak for the way red clay seeps, blood-like, through the snow-covered ground in winter – is another in the long line of wind-swept, desolate houses that populate gothic horror stories.  And man, is it ever gorgeous.  Designed by Thomas E. Sanders and sumptuously shot by Dan Laustsen, Allerdale is a dilapidated beauty, all ornate carvings, winding staircases, clanking elevators, and soaring ceilings that have given way to the elements, allowing it to snow inside.  And now Edith finds herself tucked away in this remote house (we’re told it’s a four-hour-walk to the nearest village), getting acclimated to life with her husband and his sister, a distant, suspicious woman who constantly looks at Edith out of the corner of her eye like she just opened the fridge and smelled something rotten.  Things go bump (and worse) in the night.  The walls seep red clay like blood and Edith is warned never to go into the basement.

It’s at this point that del Toro can’t seem to decide if he’s making a ghost story or a mystery and decides to split the difference, largely successfully.  Through a series of encounters with a particular specter (who shall go unidentified here), Edith begins to unravel the mysteries of Allerdale Hall, which soon puts her in conflict with one of her apparent benefactors.  It escalates into an orgy of violence – I might have actually said “Ooooooh!” out loud at one particularly shocking act, which rarely happens – that also manages to pack a surprisingly resonant emotional punch.

It’s an odd movie that I can see a lot of people being dissatisfied with.  It starts slow and doesn’t pack a lot of scares.  It is, in many ways, a conventional horror story, which seems odd coming from the director of Pan’s Labyrinth.  The broad, sweeping melodrama can be off-putting if you don’t understand what del Toro is trying to do tonally.  But I found there to be a lot to love despite its quirkiness.  The trio of Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain is immensely fun to watch – especially Chastain, who digs into her character with her usual ferocity.  Del Toro successfully mines some of the same thematic material as in his 2001 masterpiece The Devil’s Backbone, while also exploring the dangers of loving too much.  And of course the whole thing is visually impeccable.

And yet.  It feels like there’s another, weirder movie in here that ultimately might have been more successful.  The impression I got is that by chaining himself to the characteristics of the movies he was playing with, del Toro forgot that the most successful movies ultimately transcend the tropes of their genre.  It seemed for a while that we were going to get a del Toro-ian riff on gothic horror movies, but instead we got a gothic horror movie that merely settles for looking like a Guillermo del Toro movie.  It’s entertaining, to be sure, but by now del Toro has conditioned us to expect more.

*****

Current listening:

Manic everything

Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go (1996)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 3: Pingvillir to Fjadrargljufur)

DSC_0064

After Pingvillir (and a quick stop at the gift shop for travel snacks), it was time to head south to the Ring Road.  As I mentioned in my previous update, the Ring Road circles the entire country – it’s the thoroughfare everyone uses to get where they need to go, and for this first serious leg of our journey we were headed east to Vik, a tiny town on Iceland’s south coast.  One thing immediately became clear: Pointing out every beautiful thing we saw would quickly leave us with laryngitis.  It wasn’t uncommon to be cruising along and just happen upon a sight like the one above, a little farm hanging out at the foot of a magnificent hill.  But that’s what the drive was like for much of the day.  Flat land to our right (the ocean just out of sight) and imposing cliffs frequently punctuated with waterfalls to our left.

DSC_0030Our first stop of the day, after winding several miles back an unpaved road, was Keldur, location of the oldest turf homes in Iceland (which, yes, also sounds like something Clark Griswold would have taken his family to see in National Lampoon’s Vacation).  Projected to date back to the 11th Century, this was one of our surprisingly rare glimpses into ancient Iceland, and it’s all been well restored (and preserved – we were required to wear crime scene booties in the house), as evidenced by the small church now on site.

DSC_0031

As we were getting ready to leave, another couple approached us outside one of the turf homes, and the woman asked in broken English if we wouldn’t mind giving them a ride back down to the Ring Road.  Icelandic hitchhikers?  Don’t mind if I do!

After dropping our new companions at a gas station in Hella, we breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t been butchered for our car, bought some truly heinous gas station food, and then sent off for the first of the day’s two scheduled waterfalls.  We could see Seljalandsfoss from a distance, so far away that it appeared to be just a trickle of water slipping over the edge of a cliff.  Over the course of the next five(ish) miles, the scale of the falls revealed itself.  One of us might have whispered, “Holy shit.”

DSC_0041

The best thing about Seljalandsfoss is that you can walk all the way around it (which you can sort of tell in the above photo, if you haven’t been too distracted by the insane people swimming in the frigid water).

DSC_0048

DSC_0051

A little further down the road we arrived at the powerful Skogafoss.  Like virtually every waterfall we encountered, you could walk right up to the base of it …

DSC_0083

… and, in most instances, there was access to the top of it, too. (And if you were lucky you found a rock formation that resembles your own profile, like I did below.)

DSC_0090

For reference, check the looooooong set of steps winding up to the top of the falls in the photo below.

DSC_0073

Amanda and I both observed that Iceland is similar to Ireland in that they don’t seem to be particularly litigious – or at least aren’t as terrified of litigation as their American counterparts.  At Skogafoss, as at every other falls we visited, there was a solitary warning sign – you know, something like, “Fall and you might die” – but that was about it as far as security went.  And, wonder of wonders, no one seemed to be falling and/or dying.

On to Vik.  With fewer than 3,000 people, it’s mainly a coastal stopover for tourists in the summer, roughly halfway between Reykjavik and towns like Höfn in the Eastfjords.  It sported an N1 gas station (our go-to chain), a couple restaurants (where I had my first taste of Icelandic fish stew), and not much else.  That didn’t stop it from being intensely beautiful, especially as a massive wall of fog rolled in off the mountains toward the ocean.

DSC_0100

Vik is also notable for being near two very cool geologic formations.  The first is Reynisfjara, a series of basalt columns on the edge of the North Atlantic.

DSC_0115

DSC_0110 (1)

To help with the geography of all this, the two rock formations in the previous picture can be seen from a distance in the photo of the fog rolling in.  We’re talking maybe a ten-minute drive, and that’s only because it wasn’t a straight shot.

A further ten minutes brought us to Dyrholaey, a pair of arches that looked extra impressive with the added fog.  This was taken from Reynisfjara, because when you actually drive up to Dyrholaey, you’re too close for the photos to amount to much.  Weird.

DSC_0128

At this point it was 9:30 p.m., which you can clearly tell from the dazzling sunlight in all these photos.  After a long day and still feeling a little jet-lagged, it was back to our spacious accommodations…

DSC_0002

… where we jerry-rigged another Rube Goldbergian contraption to minimize the daylight and fell into an exhausted slumber.

When people think of Iceland (if they think of it at all), I’m guessing they picture it in the same way we did prior to our visit: a land of waterfalls and glaciers and mountains.  (And whimsical singers, but that’s just the music nerd in me asserting himself.)  But the below photo is what greeted us as we made our way east along the Ring Road after leaving Vik.

DSC_0007

It was a low, gray sky that accompanied us for most of our morning drive across what could charitably be referred to as a postapocalyptic wasteland.  But somehow that only made it even more impressive, more otherworldly.  These lava fields were related to the ones we’d seen on the first day near Reykjavik, but the combination of cloud and fog and intermittent rain brought home the extreme desolation of the landscape in which we were traveling.

DSC_0021

But the desolation didn’t stop people from playing with the rocks.

DSC_0009

tourist signOne additional thing Amanda and I picked up on (in addition to the fact that Icelanders don’t seem to be a bunch of lawsuit-happy dumb dumbs) is how well-marked the country’s natural attractions are.  If we ever passed a road sign sporting the symbol to the right, we usually made a hard turn and followed the sign wherever it was leading us.  It often meant we’d be traveling down some hair-raising, single lane, unpaved roads, but whatever was waiting for us at the other end was invariably worth the effort.

And so it was with Fjadrargljufur.  We weren’t sure at first.  It was 10km back an unpaved road, and I could only cross my fingers that the Auris was up to the trip.  And when we got to the parking area, it didn’t look like any big deal.  A narrow track leading up a gently-rising slope – probably a nice walk, but the country had no shortage of nice walks.  We resolved to give it ten minutes before turning around and heading up the road.  What could possibly be on the other side of the hill?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Like, oh, this.

DSC_0027

At the crest of the hill, a huge valley opened up beneath us.  We walked for another half hour, and even at that point the trail still meandered off in the distance.  Of all the unplanned and unscheduled spots we discovered, Fjadrargljufur was without question our favorite – one of those happy accidents that occurs when you’re willing to risk a flat tire in the pursuit of a memory.

DSC_0035

Up next: Höfn (by way of the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon)

DSC_0068

*****

Current listening:

Wax american

Wax Idols – American Tragic (2015)

 

Listening Post (The Wedding Present Edition)

Wedding seamonsters

I stumbled across The Wedding Present in 1989, thanks to some music magazine I’ve long forgotten. I want to say it was an early iteration of Alternative Press, but that magazine’s been so bad for so long that I have a hard time believing they ever covered anyone good.  Anyway, their 1989 album Bizarro had just been released, and the magazine was touting them as “the next Smiths.” As a 16-year-old kid heavily into angst, and distraught that I had discovered Morrissey & Marr only after they had broken up, this sounded like it was right in my wheelhouse.

Turns out, the “next Smiths” label was a misnomer. The Wedding Present’s early records (pretty much everything up through Bizarro) were frenetic things – all hyperkinetic C-86 jangle courtesy of guitarist Peter Solowka and singer, guitarist, and sole band mainstay David Gedge. The only Smiths comparison I could hear was in Gedge’s lyrics. They broached the same lovelorn territory as The Smiths’ songs – infidelity is one of Gedge’s pet themes – only without all of Morrissey’s fey melodrama and literary pretensions. Instead, they were full of dry humor and easily recognizable relationship details sung in Gedge’s vaguely croaky vocals. I immediately fell in love with Bizarro and their 1987 debut George Best. The energy of those rapid-fire guitars was infectious, and the plainspoken, Everyman quality of Gedge’s lyrics was less depressing than the Morrissey and Ian Curtis quagmire I’d been marinating in for over a year.

1991’s majestic Seamonsters was released two years later, and nothing could have prepared me for it. The album starts quietly with “Dalliance,” Gedge singing over a simply strummed guitar: “You’ve told him lies now for so long/Yet still he’s ready to forgive/He’s got you back and that’s all he wants/It’s a lot more than I’m left with.” It continues in this vein for over two minutes, seemingly leaving behind the runalong rush of earlier albums for more sedate pastures. But then the 2:45 mark hits, Gedge snarls, “I still want to kiss you,” and the song erupts in the roiling, churning sea of Gedge and Solowka’s guitars. It’s a moment that still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

“Dalliance” immediately establishes Seamonsters as a wholly different beast than the previous two albums. Produced by Steve Albini, it’s a darker and slower collection of songs, the ramshackle riffing of earlier albums replaced by guitars that snarl and roar, in some cases darting in and out of the mix (such as “Carolyn,” built around an acoustic guitar for most of its running time until a buzzsaw hacks the song to glorious pieces in its final minute). They haven’t completely left behind their signature sound – “Dare” is a propulsive, crackling beast of a song and the outro of “Rotterdam” jangles merrily – butSeamonsters is the sound of a band stretching itself beyond what could have been a stylistic dead-end.

The biggest change is that Seamonsters is the first (and only, really) Wedding Present album to have an undeniable groove, all ten songs propelled by Simon Smith’s monstrous drums. “Lovenest” is Exhibit A, entering on slithering feedback before the drums push Gedge’s vocals (a simple, perfect lyric: “I heard another voice this morning on the ‘phone/But just the other day I thought you said you slept alone/And yes I knew that laughter, okay, now I see/You wouldn’t even know him if it hadn’t been for me”) to the chorus and a sudden torrent of feedback and percussion. “Lovenest” ends with a full 90 seconds of crackling feedback before plunging headlong into “Corduroy’s” tribal drumming and thunderclouds of distortion.

The album ends on a moment of quiet beauty. “Octopussy” slowly dissolves into gently strummed guitars as Gedge sings, “We don’t have to do anything/We don’t have to do anything except watch the leaves/Turning in the wind.” It’s a dark album whose brilliance the band never quite matched in subsequent releases (which is saying something since all their albums are aces). But man – for 42 minutes I’m convinced this is as good as it gets.

Since Seamonsters the band has gone through various lineups with Gedge as the only consistent member. He shelved the band in 1997 to launch Cinerama for a few albums, then revived the Wedding Present name in 2005 with all new members. Despite these changes – and the passage of time, which renders many bands irrelevant – quality control has remained remarkably high, and any of their albums is worth your time.

Next steps: I can easily recommend everything they’ve recorded, but if you like Seamonsters (and if you don’t, you’re dead to me), go with George Best (1987) to hear their early adrenalized rush, then skip to Watusi (1994) for an infusion of pop smarts.  The band’s best latter-day album is 2012’s Valentina, which will give you a good idea of what they’re up to now.

I Can Be Afraid of Anything

halloween

Six years ago on another iteration of this blog, I put together my Horror Movie Top Ten List.  It hasn’t changed much between now and then, but it seemed to make sense to revisit it as I try to get this version of the blog up and running (especially tonight, when a lingering headache/sore throat combo prevented me from visiting a local haunted house with some friends from work).  I’m presenting it largely as it appeared in 2009, but I’ve added some minor edits and updates where applicable, along with an addendum to make up for anything list-worthy that’s shown up in theaters in the last six years.

Originally posted 10/31/09:

The rules:

1) I tried to stick with “traditional” horror movies, as opposed to movies that bleed (har har) into action or comedy or science fiction.  So that means no Alien or Shaun of the Dead or The Thing. (This is a fairly malleable criterion, though, as one or two inclusions on my list will make clear).

2) For no good reason other than I feel like it, I’ll be lumping together foreign films and their American versions, as well as original films and their remakes.  I often find I like both iterations of a movie, and sometimes for completely different reasons.  Rather than take up two spots, I combined them into one.

3) I’m crap at ranking things, so my list is alphabetical, as opposed to in order of preference.

So, here they are – My Alphabetical Top Ten (or Twelve or Fourteen, Because I’ve Combined Originals With Remakes) Horror Movies That Are Traditional Horror and Not Action or Comedy or Science Fiction.™

blair_witch_project_ver1The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) This is one of those polarizing movies, which usually means it’s doing something right.  The people who didn’t like it thought it wasn’t frightening, but the people who liked it thought it was one of the scariest things they’d ever seen.  Count me in the latter camp.  Aside from its masterful conceit – the movie is the recovered footage from three filmmakers who went missing in their search for the titular witch – the film’s naturalism (down to the occasionally obnoxious characters) made it seem all too real.  What really made the movie work, though, is the way it played on the audience’s fear of the dark and the unseen, as well as the anxiety of being completely powerless.  It’s the sense of hopelessness and desperation permeating the end of the movie that gives it its kick.  You know exactly what’s going to happen in that house, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.

Update: Of course what I really should have said in here is that nothing is more frightening than the sound of small children giggling outside your tent in the pitch black of night.  It’s also worth mentioning that anyone coming to this movie fresh is likely to be underwhelmed.  15 years of found-footage movies (most of which are dreadful) has undeniably dulled Blair Witch‘s impact.  Much of the reason why this movie hit me as hard as it did is because I’d literally never seen anything like it.

dawn_of_the_deadDawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978; Zack Snyder, 2004) The original version – like all of Romero’s zombie movies – is not just a horror movie.  Yes, the gore is gruesome and shocking and plentiful, but the movie also functions as a sly satire of consumer culture.  When the survivors take refuge in an indoor shopping mall, the parallels between the shambling zombies and brain-dread shoppers are writ large.  Snyder’s 2004 reboot strips down the satire, turns the zombies into sprinters, and delivers a bare-bones monster movie whose acting is a cut above the standard horror-movie fare.  The always-terrific Sarah Polley takes a break from independent films to head up this scary, fast-paced, no-fuss zombie flick.  The fact that this is – so far – Snyder’s last decent film before disappearing up his own ass makes it all the more worthwhile.

TheDescentPoster-755748The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) A movie that’s far scarier than it has any right to be, The Descent manages to transcend its potentially hokey premise (female spelunkers are terrorized by a clan of mutated cave dwellers) to become one of the most genuinely frightening films of the last ten years.  Like most good horror movies, The Descent works precisely because it preys on the audience’s own fears.  Marshall takes our natural aversion to darkness and claustrophobia and uses it as another monster.  The creatures don’t show up until well into the movie, but by the time they do, the audience’s nerves are already fried from anticipation and the natural stress of the situation in which the women find themselves.  The terror comes on multiple fronts, and Marshall makes it look effortless.  Be sure to watch the movie’s original, blacker-than-black ending from its European release.

Update: This one still holds up for me.  I didn’t say it at the time, but if I was going to pick my favorite horror movie of the 21st Century, this one wins, full stop.  A couple come close (see below), but The Descent ticks all the right boxes for me.

evildeadjuly05The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) I don’t know if anyone’s ever done a ranking of the goriest movies of all time, but this one has to be close to the top.  Sam Raimi’s calling card as one of cinema’s most inventive, playful directors was this creepy, gruesome take on demonic possession that also launched the career of Bruce Campbell.  Not so much a horror movie as an assault on the senses, I first saw The Evil Dead in high school and was unused to a movie sticking with me the way this one did.  The series got progressively sillier, culminating with 1992’s Army of Darkness, not a horror movie as much as a comedic riff on time travel.  The Evil Dead, if not Raimi’s definitive masterpiece, is at least the movie that most effectively illustrates what he’s capable of as a director.  As a sidenote, it was so good to see him return to this territory earlier this year with Drag Me to Hell, surely a contender for future versions of this list.

Update: I wrote this original list well before the 2013 remake, and I probably need to watch that one again.  I wasn’t particularly impressed, finding that it mainly tried to outdo the original’s gross-out factor with none of its wit or smarts.  But I suspect I owe it another viewing, this time without the weight of expectation.  Also, with six years of hindsight, Drag Me to Hell most certainly won’t be making an appearance on new versions of this list.

exorcist_posterbigThe Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)  Man, this movie. I don’t remember when I first watched it, but images from it are seared into my brain to this day.  One of the reasons it works as well as it does is because it takes its sweet old time getting things established.  Watching its re-release in the theater several years ago was a fantastic experience, but it struck me that this movie would never be made today.  It’s slooooow – especially as it establishes Father Merrin’s experiences in the Middle East and introduces Chris MacNeil and her soon-to-be possessed daughter, Regan.  The leisurely pace is key to the movie’s success, though, because we come to know and care about these characters.  And when it swings into action – with all the head-rotating, pea-soup-spewing, crucifix-abusing notoriety it gained – it never lets up until the final climactic moment.  I love horror movies, but there are very, very few of them that actually bother me – not just scare me, but lodge in the back of my brain for days afterward, where I worry at them when my mind is otherwise unoccupied.  The Exorcist is, for my money, probably the greatest horror movie of all time.

halloween2Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) Unfairly sullied by an abundance of inferior sequels (as well as by Rob Zombie’s pointless reboot), Halloween remains the archetypal slasher movie.  It also shouldn’t be held responsible for the raft of slasher movies that followed in its wake (and which continues to this day).  Carpenter’s original is genuinely frightening, from the big reveal at the end of the prologue to Michael Myers’ escape from the psychiatric hospital to his inevitable appearance in and terrorizing of bucolic Haddonfield, Illinois.  Throw in the bookish heroine played by Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as all the other devices that have since become horror movie cliché (Horny teens!  Booze!  Boobs!), and it’s easy to see why Halloween became the template followed by many less inventive filmmakers.  When it comes to slasher movies, accept no substitute.  Halloween is all you need.

Update: A year or two after writing this list I saw the original Friday the 13th on the big screen, and it’s tempting to lump the two of them together here in a bit of revisionist history.  Friday holds up better than I remembered, and, like Halloween, it can be easy to forget how good the original was in the deluge of far inferior sequels.

nightmare_on_elm_streetA Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)  It’s fitting that Wes Craven’s tour de force follows Halloween, because A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s influence has been diminished for many of the same reasons as Carpenter’s film.  An abundance of genuinely shitty sequels makes it easy to forget just how awesomely spooky and disturbing the original was.  While Nightmare is sort of a slasher movie, it goes deeper than that, plumbing the frequently surreal depths of the characters’ dreams.  And bogeyman Freddy Kruger (a child molester burned to death by the parents of the children now haunted by him) is a horror movie character fit for a time capsule.  He’s bent on revenge, but that revenge takes increasingly uncomfortable forms.  As a result, A Nightmare on Elm Street provides just as many memorable images as The Exorcist (Johhny Depp’s girlfriend being dragged across the ceiling is just one that stuck with me for a long time), and is, in its own way, just as frightening.

rec-movie-poster1[•Rec] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)/Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008) A surprisingly creepy variation on the zombie formula, [•Rec] is a Spanish movie that tells the story of a TV film crew that gets more than it bargained for when it goes along with the fire department on what was supposed to be a routine emergency run.  Upon arrival at the apartment building, the situation quickly spirals out of control as they discover – but of course – that the building’s residents have been infected with some sort of virus that turns them into feral, zombie-like carnivores, and now the authorities aren’t letting anyone out.  Related, documentary-style, from the perspective of the TV news reporter on the scene, [•Rec] puts the viewer right in the middle of the horror, and as a result, it hits even harder.  The final sequence is, to put it simply, one of the most viscerally frightening things I’ve ever seen.  Quarantine, the American remake, sticks close to the original but manages to find its own voice and adds one or two kicky little twists of its own.  Most impressively, the final scenes are every bit as effective as in the Spanish-language original, which means, as remakes go, Quarantine is an emphatic and unqualified success.

Update: [•Rec] is one of the few movies to challenge The Descent for my personal top spot.  It’s just unrelenting, even on repeat viewings.  And I wrote this list before I knew the Jennifer Carpenter of Quarantine was the Jennifer Carpenter of Dexter.  It was a kick catching up with her on that series after being blown away by her work here.

texas_chainsaw_massacreThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) One of the other big guns of modern horror movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a movie I watch at least once a year, and I always feel like I need to bathe afterward.  Focusing on a group of 20-something’s on a road trip, the entire movie seems coated with a patina of grime, from the first interaction with the hitchhiker to the shots of the cattle in the slaughterhouse to the confrontation that gives the movie its name.  It’s a crude, disturbing movie that left me feeling profoundly uneasy.  It was only after I thought about it, though, that I realized how little gore we actually see onscreen.  The movie is horrific, to be sure, but most of the violence is implied, leaving our over-active imaginations to fill in the blanks.  Often incorrectly labeled as a slasher movie, it seems to me that Chainsaw Massacre actually has more in common with the recent “torture porn” movies (Hostel, Saw, etc.).  The difference, of course, is that Chainsaw Massacre is genuinely frightening without being especially graphic, while the movies that emulate it only get the graphic part right, and almost completely leave out the fright.

twenty_eight_days_later28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)  In terms of pure entertainment, it doesn’t get any better than 28 Days Later. Jim wakes up in a deserted London hospital, wanders outside, and finds that the entire city is a ghost town.  These shots of empty British streets are breathtaking, and it’s this visual panache (courtesy of Danny Boyle, one of my favorite directors, and his frequent director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle) that helps establish 28 Days Later as being more than a garden-variety horror movie.  Jim comes to discover that the population has been virtually wiped out by a virus that turns the infected into hyper-aggressive (and very hungry) cannibals.  A movie about human nature as much as it is about survival, 28 Days Later is an intense and harrowing experience.  If the ending feels a little like an optimistic cop-out, I forgive Boyle for wanting to give viewers a single ray of sunshine after the 90 minutes of pitch-blackness that preceded it.

Brand new stuff:

Okay, like I said at the top, not much has changed in the last six years.  I still stand by all these selections, but reviewing the list now it bugs me that classics like Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London didn’t make the cut, and not representing more recent films like Brad Anderson’s unbelievably creepy Session 9 and Bryan Bertino’s home invasion masterwork The Strangers also seems like an oversight.  But if I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure which films on the existing list they’d replace.

Finally, in the interest of staying current, here’s quickie reviews of four more movies released since I wrote the original list that could show up in my Top Ten on a good day.

220px-The_House_of_the_DevilThe House of the Devil (2009) This slow-burn throwback to the grungy 70s isn’t for everyone.  It starts slow and stays slow (until the batshit crazy climax), but writer/director Ti West’s meditation on Satanic cults transcends its stylistic affectations to deliver something truly unique (and uniquely frightening).

k

k

k

k

 

It Follows

It Follows (2015) Read it as an allegory for the dangers of promiscuity all you want, but I found it to be a clever riff on the inexorability (and inevitability?) of slasher movie villains.  Writer/director David Robert Mitchell cannily plays with tone and setting in a way that consistently keeps the audience off-balance, and in “final girl” Maika Monroe we’ve finally got an heir to Jamie Lee Curtis.

k

k

k

 

.

ParanormalParanormal Activity (2009) One of the few found-footage movies to up the ante from Blair Witch (and do something original in the process), Paranormal Activity scared the hell out of me for many of the same reasons as its predecessor.  Capitalizing on our (or maybe it’s just my) completely natural fear of crazy shit happening while we’re asleep, writer/director Oren Peli tells a tale of demonic possession solely through camcorder footage.  Rather than being hokey, he uses this limitation to his advantage, showing us in inventive ways all those things that go bump in the night.  Paranormal Activity is that rare breed of movie that literally had me covering my eyes.  And I firmly believe that the first three movies in the series, taken as a trilogy, are the high-water mark in 21st Century horror filmmaking.

.

UnfriendedUnfriended (2015) I know, I know.  But trust me on this one.  Taking place entirely in real time on one girl’s computer screen – through the manipulation of applications like Facebook, Spotify, IMs, Skype, and so on – Unfriended gives us something truly original.  As a killer stalks a group of high school friends communicating online, director Levan Gabriadze ratchets up the tension in wholly unexpected ways.  It may not age very well (as technology evolves, it’s probably going to look as quaint as Drew Barrymore’s landline in Scream), but for now it’s got the goods.

.

.

Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Recommendations?  Sound off in the comments.

*****

Current listening:

New get

New Order – Get Ready (2001)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 2: The Golden Circle)

DSC_0023

Reenergized by the soothing waters of the Blue Lagoon and coursing with adrenaline after nearly being run down by a bus in the parking lot while taking a photo, it was time to hop in the Auris and head for the Golden Circle.  While the most popular sites in Iceland can be seen on or near Route 1 (the Ring Road, named for the way it circles the perimeter of the country), the Golden Circle is a smaller loop east of Reykjavik that includes four of the country’s most well-known attractions: Kerid Crater (a crater), Geysir (a, erm, geyser), Gullfoss (a waterfall), and the minor miracle that is Pingvillir National Park.  We were staying near Gullfoss that night and were due to snorkel in Pingvillir the next day, so we resolved to catch the first two attractions, see the third after dinner, and then call it an early night.

A word on driving in Iceland: It’s easy.  Knowing the Ring Road was the only major thoroughfare in the country and that it was the height of tourist season, I was expecting, if not bumper-to-bumper traffic, then at least some minor inconvenience that would make me glad I’d been tempered by the congestion of the freeways of Los Angeles and Atlanta.  As it turned out, traffic was almost nonexistent.  We could go ten minutes or more without seeing another car, and once we got to the northern part of the country and into the Westfjords we were more likely to see sheep on the road than other tourists.  If you’re expecting hair-raising tales of vehicular adventure, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  Driving in Iceland was no worse (and usually a hell of a lot better) than driving in the States.

Kerid Crater, the 3,000-year-old remnant of a volcanic eruption, is pretty impressive.  Like most of the sights in Iceland (and unlike virtually anything comparable in the U.S.), it just sort of sits out in the open.  No gates, no fences, no guards.  There was a kiosk at the parking area that said we’d have to pay ISK3,000 to enter, but the friendly-looking kid in the booth just waved us through.  We hiked up a short hill which suddenly opened out onto the crater itself.

DSC_0042

In this photo you can see the parking area at the top of the lefthand slope.  An unprotected trail leads all the way around the crater, and if we’d been so inclined we could’ve strolled down the gentle grassy slope on the right side of the photo to the water’s edge.  But because we’d only been in the country about four hours at this point and weren’t exactly sure what we could get away with, we stayed at the top to take in the scale of it all.

Back in the car and on to Geysir.  Okay, look: nothing against Geysir.  It’s perfectly lovely.  It was very popular.  Amanda bought a troll at the gift shop.

IMG_0483

But heated water spewing from the ground looks in Iceland exactly like it does anywhere else in the world.  I don’t regret the stop (I mean, look at that troll!), but it really was the one truly underwhelming thing we saw on our entire trip.

Gullfoss, on the other hand, was our first brush with majesty.

DSC_0067

Located a short two minute drive from our guesthouse, Gullfoss (“foss,” just so’s you know, is Icelandic for “waterfall”) was our introduction to the phenomenon we like to call, “What the Hell Can We Possibly Say About This?”  At some point you’re faced with such beauty that words fail and all you can do is grin goofily.  That’s how we spent much of this trip: in a near-constant state of wonder.

DSC_0055

IMG_0325How beautiful was it?  Even though our reaction to people taking selfies is usually to want to run by and knock them over, we suddenly found ourselves taking some of our own.  Iceland is so beautiful it will make you compromise your core values.

At this point we’d been going virtually non-stop for 24 hours.  I don’t often sleep on planes, although it’s not for lack of trying.  I can squeeze in thirty minutes here and there between the person behind me kicking my seat or the drink cart obliterating my shoulder, but managing some sustained period of slumber rarely happens.  Amanda had slept more than me, but not by much.  All of which is to say at this point we were nearing a state of exhaustion.

And here’s where things got tricky.  You’ve heard of the land of the midnight sun?  That’s Iceland in the summer.  At the time we were there (early July), the sun literally never sets. It’s not full daylight, but it’s bright enough.  Imagine dusk lasting for eight hours.   We got back to our guesthouse and, through an elaborate system of pillows, hair ties, and elbow grease, were able to MacGyver the blinds so they let in as little light as possible.  It wasn’t perfect sleep that first night, and it was really, really bizarre to wake at 2:00 a.m. and see 4:00 p.m. light coming through the windows, but things would get better.

We rose early, got acquainted with Icelandic breakfasts (lots of bread and cheese, also lots of lunch meat and cold fish), and hit the road for Pingvillir National Park.

DSC_0006

The park’s big historic claim to fame is that it was the seat of the Icelandic government from AD 930 to 1798.  Its geographic claim to fame is that it’s where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet (and are currently spreading apart).  I’ll illustrate in the next two photos.  In the first one, the tall wall on the far side of the parking lot is the edge of the Eurasian plate.  In the second photo, taken from the top of the Eurasian plate, the distant snowline at the base of the mountains is the edge of the North American plate.

DSC_0009

DSC_0017

In the middle of the area between the two plates is Silfra, the tectonic boundary that forms the fissure in which we’d be snorkeling.  After struggling into our drysuits and waddling across the road to the edge of the water, we slowly descended into the frigid water (roughly 34 degrees Fahrenheit year-round).

IMG_0182

IMG_0198

Once again, what can I possibly say?  The water was shockingly clear, and as I paddled along the fissure it was breathtaking (and, yes, okay, sort of creepy) to watch the rocks fall away to reveal the fissure’s full 60-meter (200-foot) depth.

IMG_0409

I’m not a water guy.  Give me rocks I can climb, and I’m a happy dude.  I’ve never been drawn to beaches or lakes, and I find the immensity and power of the ocean to be fairly intimidating.  So there was a brief moment of panic as I learned to work my arms in tandem with my flippers and an additional moment of discomfort as I waited for my exposed skin to finally numb the hell up in the cold water.  But once I figured all that out and told my brain to take some time off I could sit back (metaphorically) and enjoy what I was seeing.  Maybe this is paradoxical (and I’m probably going to do a crap job of describing it), but the best way I can explain it is in terms of flight.  Silfra was so deep that being able to float along the surface and peer straight down into the belly of this underground cave was (at first) disorienting and then sort of exhilarating.  It’s not often you’re given the chance of capturing a bird’s eye view of something a couple hundred feet underwater.

Also, we got hot chocolate afterward.

There were other things to see in Pingvillir, like – hey! – this church…

DSC_0023 (1)

… but after Silfra it was tricky to come back to solid ground.

Up next: The road to Vik…

DSC_0105

 

*****

Current listening:

Pale comforts

Pale Saints – The Comforts of Madness (1990)

Listening Post (Blue Aeroplanes Edition)

In an effort to maintain the “write to keep myself entertained” mantra of a couple days ago, I’ll be featuring a different album on here a few times a week.  It’ll be something formative – something that got me hooked as a nascent music fan, something that helped reify my tastes in my 20s and 30s, or something that’s speaking to me now, as a grown man on the cusp of total decrepitude.  You’ll get some commentary and some videos, and, as always, I invite your feedback.  So here it is, then, the inaugural edition of Listening Post.

Blue swagger

This shouldn’t work. Some guy recites free-verse poetry over indie-rock guitars, occasionally abandoning his own verse to use that of Sylvia Plath’s. There’re songs about fossils and androgyny and the symbolic power of colors. Oh, and of the seven band members listed on the album sleeve, someone named Wojtek Dmochowski is credited with “Dance.” It should be terrible. But for thirty years The Blue Aeroplanes have been pretty fantastic. They hit an early 90’s high-water mark with Swagger (1990) and Beatsongs (1991), and I probably could’ve featured either (or both) here. But Swagger, their fourth album, was my introduction to the band, and remains my favorite.

You get a pretty good feeling for what you’re in for from the offing. Vocalist Gerard Langley intones, “Pick a card, any card/Wrong!” over Angelo Bruschini and Rodney Allen’s film-noir guitars, and opener “Jacket Hangs” lurches into motion.

Langley gets most of the attention, and with good reason. He doesn’t sing, not even in the way Lou Reed and Bob Dylan “sing,” and his spoken-word approach – which should come off like a gimmick but doesn’t – inevitably makes the listener focus on his poetry. It’s surprisingly good stuff, certainly better than a lot of conventional song lyrics, turning on striking sensory images: the “sound of violins drowned in gunfire”; hands that “flutter round the neck/like nervous birds”; the “grass bank ghosts” left by a riverside. Langley doesn’t do anything flashy with his vocals, and his unadorned recitation allows the music to do most of the heavy lifting.

And Bruschini and Allen truly do yeoman’s work on this album. Like I said, Langley commands a lot of the attention, but it just wouldn’t work without the dual guitar accompaniment. They do the bluesy spy-movie stuff on “Jacket Hangs,” unleash an echoing whirlwind on “…And Stones,” work themselves up into a righteous fury on “Weightless,” and exercise some sheer pop smarts on “Love Come Round” and “Anti-Pretty.” And then there’s what is, for me, the album’s highlight: the delicate, pastoral “Your Ages.” Over chiming guitars Langley recites some of the most vivid, affecting verses on the album, urging a lover to take advantage of the time they have: “In ten years everything will bleach to primer/And we’ll lie in the light, grass bank ghosts.” As Langley makes his final exhortation, the guitars pick up the pace and build to a churning crescendo before slowly tapering off. Strong stuff.

There are some other tricks that add to the enjoyment of the album. Michael Stipe guests on “What it Is,” adding some distinctively Stipeian “oh”‘s and “ah”‘s, guitarist Allen takes the mic on the pretty, mandolin-led “Careful Boy,” and “The Applicant” is the previously-mentioned Sylvia Plath adaptation. The band makes the poem its own, turning it into a muscular, percussive tune, climaxing as Langley bellows, “Will you marry it?” The album ends with the relentless drone of “Cat-Scan Hist’ry,” the building storm of guitars and Langley’s repeated vocal line complemented by the squeal of violins and clouds of feedback. This is a band that does a lot of different things well, and they’re all pretty much on display here. Swagger, indeed.

Next steps: If you like what you hear, the most logical place to proceed is their next album, 1991’s Beatsongsfollowed by Life Model (1994).

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 1: Atlanta to the Blue Lagoon)

DSC_0006

Like many travelers, I suffered my first panic attack on the tarmac at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

One of the inconveniences of flying out of Atlanta on summer evenings is the likelihood that the plane is going to be A) caught in a torrential downpour, B) swept away in a tornado, or C) struck by lightning.  The South’s summer popup storms are one of those things I’ve had to get used to since moving here in 2009 (along with thinly veiled racism and sweet tea).  And so here we were, Amanda and I, sitting in a grounded plane on the runway, waiting for the weather to give us a window to take off and begin our ten(nish)-day trip to Iceland.  I’m normally a calm flyer – if the plane crashes, it crashes, and at least my relatives will have a good story to tell – and it wasn’t the thought of death in a spiraling ball of flame that had me hyperventilating.

It was missing our damn connection.

We had two hours to deplane in New York and catch our flight to Reykjavik.  At this point we had already been held in the terminal for twenty minutes when the storm first descended, and as fifteen minutes on board the stifling mausoleum with wings stretched into thirty, then forty, I felt eight months of careful planning constricting my heart.  At one point, after the pilot came on the intercom to tell us we were still waiting for clearance, I might have whimpered.

Over an hour later we took off without incident.  As long as we flew direct to JFK, everything would be fine.  I relaxed.  I breathed easily.  I tried to wipe away the tears in such a way that Amanda couldn’t make fun of me later.  Finally, I cracked open Dave Eggers’ The Circle and watched our flight’s progress out of the corner of my eye on the little back-of-the-headrest screen.  So far, so good.  Until we hit New York and learned that due to storms up and down the East Coast, planes were stacked over JFK in a series of layers roughly resembling Dante’s circles of hell.  I kept watching our plane on the screen, and every time we diverted from our northerly descent to turn east over the Atlantic in another time-sucking loop, I cackled and died a little inside.

And then.

Because I’m not a religious fella, I can only chalk up the conversation I had with our flight attendant to a degree of luck that should’ve sent me immediately to Vegas – or, considering our proximity, Atlantic City.  As it turned out, the plane we were on was the very plane we’d be taking to Reykjavik, so those suckers seated in JFK scarfing down Cinnabon and Panda Express were waiting on us.

Result!

The rest of the journey to Reykjavik truly was without incident.  Amanda slept.  I read and watched a couple episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  We ate substandard airplane food and suppressed our excitement at the adventure on which we were about to embark.

Because here’s the thing: Iceland?  It was still mythological.  Besides having seen pictures and heard stories from a friend who’d honeymooned there, it was still largely fantastical to us – the land of trolls and Björk, volcanic activity and fermented shark.  We certainly had high hopes, but for the first time in our married lives we were taking a trip into the unknown.

DSC_0001We were met at the terminal by a friendly guy from Lagoon Car Rental, who drove us to the office where we picked up our Toyota Auris – which is, I’m guessing, a distant Scandinavian relative to the Yaris I currently drive.  I’ll try to avoid making too many plugs in this travelogue, but if you find yourself in Reykjavik and needing a car, go to Lagoon.  We were only the second customers to rent this particular vehicle, and we have nothing but good things to say about our experience.

On to our first stop: the Blue Lagoon.  Yes, it’s touristy.  Yes, it’s something of an Icelandic cliché.  But after a six-hour flight, submerging ourselves in a geothermal spa sounded exactly like what we needed.

But first, this, because saying it now will save me saying it multiple times later: Iceland is a land of frequently overwhelming beauty.  I’m pretty well-traveled (which I say not as a boast, but as context).  My parents took care of the U.S. when I was a wee lad (the only two states I haven’t visited are Alaska and – go figure – Utah), and as an adult I’ve done parts of Canada, most of the U.K. and Ireland, France, New Zealand, and Australia.  There are certainly large swathes of the planet I’m unaccustomed with, but I’m also not marveling at things like it’s my first trip to the big city.

Put simply: Iceland is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.  Lava fields, waterfalls, mountains, glaciers (and glacial lagoons), beaches, meadows.  The country has a little bit of everything, and that little bit of everything is all exquisitely beautiful.  There were times when Amanda and I quite literally couldn’t talk.  It was enough just to process what we were seeing, because we knew we wouldn’t see anything like it again.

On this first day – and, really, in this first hour – in Iceland, we got our first taste of the lava fields.

DSC_0020

Volcanoes aren’t exactly what leap to mind when I think of Iceland (it’s usually the music of Sigur Rós, which isn’t particularly scenic by itself), but they probably should be.  Much of the southern part of the country is taken up with the oddly beautiful desolation of these rocky, mossy expanses.  It reminded me in some ways of Joshua Tree National Park or Uma Thurman: not conventionally beautiful, but still pretty spectacular.

DSC_0018

The Blue Lagoon itself was much as advertised.  It’s a geothermal spa.  The water is blue.  It’s relaxing.  We had blueberry Skyr (more on that later) smoothies from a swim-up bar.  There were a lot of loud Europeans.  It was fun, but it was also the most underwhelming part of the entire trip.  That’s not a knock against the Blue Lagoon as much as it’s an endorsement of just how unbelievable the rest of the trip was.  Here’s a photo, because I’m all about customer service.

IMG_0317

Suitably relaxed, we ate an overpriced ham sandwich in the café (we learned pretty quickly not to bother doing the conversion from Icelandic kroner to U.S. dollars, because we’d just spend the entire trip in varying states of depression) and headed for the Golden Circle – one of the most scenic driving routes in the southern part of the country.

But more on that in the next installment (because everyone loves a cliffhanger).

Preview!:

DSC_0044

*****

Current listening:

Afghan black

The Afghan Whigs – Black Love (1996)

I Feel So Free (Citation Needed)

rebootI think I figured it out.

Maybe.

The trick with blogging is – wait for it – staving off boredom.

I’ve tried a few different strategies over the years to keep this thing fresh (and by “this thing” I’m referring to the various blogs I’ve kept since 2003, not necessarily this one in particular, which has never been especially lively).  I’ve forced myself to post daily, I’ve exhorted readers for comments, I’ve focused on a particular genre, I’ve incorporated theme posts, and I’ve identified a range of causes for my inconsistent writing habits (all of which or none of which may be accurate).  Nothing has stuck.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get the itch to write, especially now that there’s so much perplexing stuff going on in the world – in addition to all the usual professional and personal issues I still have an odd inclination to dump into cyberspace.

So, with my newfound epiphany in mind, it’s possible that, like so many other things in my life, I’m making the blog more complicated than it has to be.

Maybe the big blogging secret is this: Write to keep myself entertained.

I know the prevailing theory is that a blog should be focused – on cats, on recipes, on movies, on 18th Century haberdashery – to generate an audience, but I’m too easily distracted to write about only one thing with any sustainable passion.  Faithful readers (hi, you two) know I kept the book review thing going for a year(ish), but there were some significant silent periods where I just couldn’t be bothered to crank out another thousand words.  So I’m hoping that engaged writer trumps scattered blog.

So: Whether you’re a friend who’s stuck around this long or you’ve somehow stumbled onto this post by accident, what can you expect from here on in?

  • Reviews (movies, music, books)
  • Political rants
  • Personal stories
  • Travel diaries
  • Infrequent poetry and/or short fiction
  • Cultural commentary
  • Humorous* observations
  • Random detritus that doesn’t fit anywhere else

Will I sustain it?  I dunno.  I mean, I know the odds aren’t in my favor.  But maybe – just maybe – if I can avoid my tendency to turn this thing into homework, it might last longer than a week and a half (but, ahem, comments from readers really help).

* may not actually be humorous

*****

Current listening:

Girls arms

Girls Names – Arms Around a Vision (2015)