Author: Ryan

Ryan is the author of the Diverted Gaze art discussion website.
Cry Macho – Clint Eastwood’s Requiem

Cry Macho – Clint Eastwood’s Requiem

Cry Macho is a powerful elegiac film from Clint Eastwood. At 91 years old, it seems odd to see Eastwood acting in a western, but he still has a lot to say about a genre which he spent much of his life in. He is quite aware of his age and casts himself as a retired cowboy reaching the end of his life. It is really a chance to deconstruct the western genre, and American myths which it mirrors, in a more calm and quiet way than his classic masterpiece, Unforgiven.

Both films are critiques of the mythology of the western film. It’s a genre that used to be one of the most important for Hollywood, but that is only rarely revived nowadays. This is for good reason. Society has moved on from that era quite a bit in terms of morals, social composition, and technology. At the same time, westerns are essential for the way they capture so many American myths. While westerns are guilty of spreading a mythology of American progress that really destroyed much of the natural and indigenous world that used to be here, often spreading violence and economic exploitation rather than civilization, progressives of today still hold to the same mythology of moving the world forward with progress while they attack other people, even though that instead appears to be the ideology of conservatives.

Clint Eastwood’s film collapses all of these conventions, and in doing so, it manages to critique much of American ideology itself. While otherness in most westerns took the form of native Americans, Eastwood here focuses on Mexicans. The border with Mexico is somewhat untamed, as has often been associated with Trump complaining about it, but Eastwood turns this chaotic world into a part of the West, an unpredictable frontier of different people encountering one another. For Eastwood though, none of the groups involved are inherently good are bad. They are complex, and all of them face economic problems and have people who just want to live. 

The portrayal of Mexicans in Cry Macho is as normal people with aspirations, needs, and problems quite similar to anyone else. They mostly just happen to be poor. They also have to deal with corruption, as the film shows us Mexican authorities not really acting in the interest of their own population. In the running time of the movie, much of what most people might believe about Mexico and its border is collapsed into a different world that is foreign in a cultural sense but completely familiar to us as people deal with normal issues of seeking a decent life. 

The expectations for cowboys are upended as well. Eastwood’s character is no conservative. He is a nature loving gentle person who likes fresh air and open spaces and tries to get along with other people. In keeping with his own real Hollywood self, Eastwood’s version of a cowboy is more progressive than anyone thinks of someone in a red state as being. He just happens to have zero interest in politics and prefers to be nice to other people and worry about normal problems, such as staying alive and healthy and having money and food. Isn’t that what everyone should be thinking about instead of arguing with one another over political ideologies?

Much like Unforgiven demythologized the West, showing exploitation of women and nature, a corrupt sheriff, racism, violent idiots portrayed as heroes, and a hard drinking antihero with a heart underneath it all, Cry Macho takes apart the American mythos even further, not only critiquing the western genre, but using it as a mirror for contemporary America that shows a hollowness to preconceptions Americans often have about one another and about Mexico. To Eastwood, life is about basic needs more central than any of that, commonly shared by all, and best satisfied with a common shared humanism. 

Cry Macho is an important, sad, slow, meditative film with far more than it seems at first glance, but it is made to be touched by and thought about rather than existing as a piece of entertainment. It’s the kind of film someone could only make late in his career after saying everything he needed to say and being in a position to be self indulgent enough to reflect back on the whole ride and leave something thoughtful behind to help everyone else avoid getting lost. Clearly, Eastwood has both a conscience and a soul, and that humanism is what made his film career so amazing and engaging for so long. It’s nice to see that he cared enough to make a noncommercial film like this. 

As Eastwood gets nearer to the end of his life, he has made a powerful and elegiac poem about both Eastwood and the genre of the western riding into the sunset. It’s a film for thought and not for action.

Tenet – movie review

Tenet – movie review

Christopher Nolan’s new film, Tenet, was released under possibly the most bizarre conditions a movie has ever been released within. During the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, theaters are often closed, require masks if open, and play films to empty rooms. Outside the theater, people are jobless, sick, or scared of both. Perhaps the oddness of that was just too much for Nolan to resist for his new film, which has an innovative temporal structure that might be the only thing weirder than the behavior of the Trump administration. It’s a bleak but brilliant film for bleak times which are as out of joint as what the film portrays.

A visually powerful director with bold composition and tendencies towards epic storytelling, Nolan made Dunkirk about hope and humanitarian aims amidst the worst possible situation. Interstellar showed the worst world of perhaps any film, with humanity on the midst of extinction after destroying earth, something which should cause the film to resonate far more now that California is burning thanks to capitalists exploiting the environment just about to death. Nolan’s Batman trilogy showed a dark and collapsing world looking for a savior, and A Dark Knight Rises has often been used to show parallels to social deterioration under the Trump era.

With Tenet, Nolan has made the oddest film of his whole career. The movie seems like it should be a European arthouse work instead of a mainstream Hollywood film, much less one that cost $200 million, but Nolan has been successful enough with idiosyncratic large films that he was able to do as he pleased. The result is brilliant, strange, and disquieting. The narrative moves through time in an odd enough way as to make the plot quite hard to follow. In particular, I found it impossible to tell when the film should end, because the temporal playfulness of Nolan’s central idea makes it unclear how his film should be edited and leaves one wondering what should be before or after and given scene.

In spite of that, it’s an excellent film, beautiful in a grand visual sense with sweeping depictions of how the world might head to its end with science and capitalism both run amok. Buildings collapse and then rise again in reverse. People move forward and backward, displaced from themselves and their own history.

The film explores interesting intellectual puzzles about the nature of personal identity, history, and time. One of the puzzles of physics is why time moves forward and never backward. The same equations that describe motion that happens forward in time work equally well when moving backwards through time. The intriguing scientific bit here is that insofar as physics effectively reduces natural phenomena to equations, for an event to move backwards instead of forwards makes perfect sense. After consulting physicists like Kip Thorne for Interstellar, Nolan is aware of this and made a film that fully works out how the consequence could play out in cinema as well as showing how it raises issues about major themes for human beings. 

If time can move backwards just as well as forwards, it’s not irrational to suppose that making this happen could be a future scientific discovery. It’s quite possible, of course, that things really can’t go backwards for reasons not presently understood, but this is a plausible science fiction scenario much like Interstellar was, something that may never actually happen but theoretically could happen.

That is an interesting cinematic terrain to explore, and doing so requires a grand level of skill, to which Nolan may be the only person up to the task. Working out a way to fit this chaotic material together, film it so grandly, and edit such a massive jigsaw of events is an analytical undertaking on a massive scale. While the drama suffers from a certain deflation given the problems this structure creates with the normal cause and effect sequence of a protagonist’s actions, Nolan is rather brilliant for seeing how this shapes and reshapes who a person is and also for seeing how human history itself would become a muddle.

The great Marxian project was one of showing how history could be understood as an empirical science, and this has influenced major thinkers for generations. This important intellectual consideration of a major philosopher / economist is often lost in the world of anti-communism that took over the West after the failures of the Soviet era brought such horrors such as the gulag and Chernobyl, and I often commiserate that the serious intellectual appreciation of a thinker as influential as Marx gets lost in this, but at bottom Marx treated history as a sort of materialist machine that bifurcates between shaping human beings and itself being shaped by human choices. This idea of an an engine of history encounters something remarkable in the disjointed plot of Tenet as it skips through time in more than one direction. 

Nolan is smart enough to appreciate this mixing of history with personal actions as shaping every person, every society, and effectively the world, and he undoes the meaning of this in a radical way by mixing up the flow of time. If time could move backward as well as forward, this would bring with it a remarkably postmodern world of things in flux, being broken and put back together again. 

So this is what happens to the protagonist of the film, and it has a strong resonance, as even without technological manipulation of time, the imposing world of technology, corrupt institutions, mixtures of violent terrorists and violent governments, and science run amok rips society to shreds right before our eyes while the coronavirus rages through our societies, economies, and hospitals. The disjointed picture of the world in Tenet looks shockingly similar to the world we all live in during 2020, a world where we sit waiting for a big scientific discovery (a vaccine) while we are powerless in the midst of chaos as we wait. 

Political leaders are depraved, ruthless, calculating, and corrupt in the film, much like the insipid ones we really do live around, psychopathic manipulators of events and opinions all aimed to make themselves more powerful. One of the masterful strokes of the film is that it is unclear who protagonist X works for. We know it’s the government, but this is kept so amorphous that it could be almost anyone. After spending some time lately reading the spy novels of the great John Le Carre, whose latest is about our present predicament of Brexit, Trump, Putin, and… endless nonsense, the most true thing about the spy world is that nothing is left clear. It’s a world of opaqueness which fits perfectly amidst Nolan’s strange world of people who don’t know themselves, and who sometimes even unmake themselves.

It’s hard to tell who really works for who and who or what the players are really loyal to. As Le Carre describes this, the difficulty is that criminals and thieves are hired as spies. So when they go bad, no one knows where to look or what to do, and when they are good, they do the same things as the bad spies. This makes for a messy world of nonsense, and it leaves spying as the perfect place to encapsulate Nolan’s idea of a world where science reduces meaning to nonsense by manipulating time. 

This director has manipulated time in a more realistic way in Interstellar, a film that holds more importance than most intellectual books about time, because while a lot of fuss has been made about the meaning of the theory of relativity’s clear observation that time is not a stable thing (that it changes with gravity amongst other variables), I doubt very seriously how much anyone really understands that. Nolan’s film forces one to make sense of it by showing people try to explore space while they experience time at completely different paces based on where they are. With film being an instrument of time, both these films should rank as among the most important cinematic works for so carefully exploring time itself.

Tenet is an oddity that does not defy criticism. The way this inventive approach to time shapes drama is important to examine, but its cleverness may well fall outside the bounds of the mainstream audience it was released for. The sheer spectacle of the film may lead to it making more money in the long run than is anticipated, but this is an intellectual arthouse work at bottom that is lucky to receive the grandiose budget that was needed to make such an important film.

Marilyn Manson – Heaven Upside Down – music review

Marilyn Manson – Heaven Upside Down – music review

Marilyn Manson has charted an amazing, unusual, and controversial path as an artist and musician, but he is one of the most vital commentators on culture in the last 30 years. His rise was met with a mixture of admiration and scorn as he presented original but somehow summative industrial sounds that captured a much broader public than anyone besides Trent Reznor. He quickly showed the world an accomplished performance art that helped him to upset average people and force them to think. Many people get upset when they have to think hard. So Manson spent a lot of time being attacked for things he never did. What he has actually done is to hold a mirror up to contemporary society and culture with an offering of fun but serious and troubling criticism on what our culture has embraced, including its obvious but somehow oblivious path toward its own demise. Last year brought an important and successful tour for 2017’s Heaven Upside Down. He had been injured at the end of 2018 when some of his stage props fell on him during a show, and the combination of an exceptional last album and the recovery seem to have left him inspired. He gave one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and it’s important to take a look at where he came from in getting there.

His second album, Antichrist Superstar, is a landmark classic of industrial music, and it was followed by a few equally excellent and classic albums before his career became rocky, largely over accusations for something he had nothing to do with regarding the tragedy at Columbine in Colorado. Efforts to associate Manson with that event at the time were bizarre, based entirely on him being a person who writes and sings songs from thousands of miles away. It’s one of the stranger insinuations to have been made against an artist, weirder even than the two or three people who might have actually thought that Helter Skelter by The Beatles led to Charles Manson (the half namesake of Marilyn), who was an avowed fan of the song with his own deluded idea of a social collapse he was hoping and waiting for, and which he labeled as Helter Skelter. Marilyn Manson, of course, came by his stage name through mixing Manson’s last name with Marilyn Monroe, a sort of reference to the fatalistic glamor of horror in the media, which is really a takedown of our own civilization as corrupt and decrepit. It’s something that befits commenting on a society that has done things like glorify the assassination of JFK in the morbidly horrific frames of the Zapruder film and has spent endless time dwelling on violent events through the lens of mass media. The name of his musical self shows the clever plays on culture made by Manson, which are always present in his best music and performance, but he actually coined the name as a kid trying to start a band as outlined in his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell.

Once he honed his craft well, Antichrist Superstar was born (after moderate success of a previous album and EP) as one of the most influential albums anyone has made, an industrial monstrosity of electronic rock with a mix of anthems, horror, grinding complex sounds, and devastatingly shrewd insight. The name of Marilyn Manson became prophetic for a musician who would become one of the most outrageous and insightful of commentators on popular culture. The media inundates us with images of glamour and horror juxtaposed together, rich celebrities and strange horrors it would be nicer to never see. For all the attacks on Manson, that combination of depictions as a hallmark of our society seems to be one that is difficult to avoid accepting. Journalists report on glamorous celebrities and horrific violence as a way to get attention and boost ratings, and our society is guilty of tuning in to watch stories about movie stars, car crashes, offensive politicians, violent crime, and war.

If one chooses to diagnose society based on what the public chooses to consume, the result is disturbing. In that vein, Marilyn Manson becomes the person who comments on where civilization is. To view Manson at his best, is to view society through a mirror of its own depravity, but the credit Manson deserves is that he does all of this to complain about society being unjust and not quite right rather than to promote more horror. Like the great zombie films of George Romero, Manson engages with disquieting things to show us what’s wrong with ourselves and to complain. Romero’s great study of consumer capitalism, the carnage in a mall shown in Dawn of the Dead, produced loads of outrage when it was released for depicting grotesque violence, but it was all staged, all theater, all makeup, and all meant to show that there is a problem with a society that it so desperate to consume that we can understand it best metaphorically by watching people behave as cannibalistic zombies. Manson is similar in his ability to wake people up by showing them the mess they are already in.

Fast forward to today, and much of this becomes clear. Manson now appears the legitimate victim, and most people who aren’t even his fans are clever enough to get that his performance art has no relation to violence in America. Also, the horror of Columbine has given way to very many similar events all around the country. It is impossible to any longer deny that the problem with violence in America is not found in the work of a challenging performer but with the actual people in our society, with the prevalence of guns, and with the problem of violence being accepted instead of condemned. Manson looks quite prophetic for complaining all the way back in the 1990’s that things would end up the way they look now, with lower wages, less healthcare, more violence, and a highly unstable society with questionable merits. To fix something that’s broken, one must recognize the problem, and Manson has helped do that. Indeed, since his last tour, America has gone downhill much farther to have millions of people infected with a weird coronavirus while the president threatens to have the military attack citizens amidst people being tear gassed.

His music and performance art of today are very high quality and look somewhere in between revival and retrospective. He has managed to bring back the edge and clear intent of his best work. In Denver, at Fillmore Auditorium just before Halloween, Manson performed a show that summed up his career with profundity, and he offered comments and quips on some of the things that had happened to him. He was genuinely moved by playing in Colorado after it had been the source of some of his troubles, and he expressed deep appreciation to fans in Denver who have supported him through it. The event was marked by frequent forays into the audience with him hugging fans and supporters. It was one of the best shows I have ever seen anyone perform. The entire essence of Manson’s work was up there on display, and the friendliness and appreciation he expressed to his audience skirted profundity.

He made clear that part of the reason for this came from the false allegations surrounding Columbine, which are weird enough not to even be allegations, because he was principally accused of playing sometimes shocking music, with the allegation part being that somehow doing so caused mass violence, a distinctly American problem that plays on repeat and usually involves people who don’t listen to Manson, as well as politicians and journalists who themselves promote violence. He expressed great thanks to fans in Denver for supporting him through the ordeal, which led to a very difficult period stemming from continual harassment involving something he had nothing to do with.

Now, Manson is back, and the world has predominantly come to a clear understanding of the unfairness of the entire ordeal. As a creative person who is able to use disruptive events to strong creative affect, Manson has gone on to excellent recording, composition, and performance in the aftermath. The show at Fillmore was a standout of his return, with a sweeping performance display with changing imagery and skillful lighting and costuming highlighting distinct portions of his career and his song craft. The concluding portion of the show with confetti falling was one of the more beautiful things I’ve seen at a concert and was an elegiac surprise from such a bombastic personality. While Manson is known for being over the top, it’s important to recognize that most of that happens as a performance. The personality coming through all night made clear that the underlying intent is good, an event meant to move and connect with people as a sort of revelation.

His autobiography is an interesting read. Though written with the assistance of someone else, Manson is honest enough to name his cowriter, and the text leads me to surmise he mainly had someone help him edit and shape his stories into a more readable text, which was probably a good move for someone whose talents have been cultivated more around music and performance art than literature. We get a funny and intimate biography that really does emphasize Manson as a performance artist and cultural critic. It’s all very much a presentation or a production, and the presentation is reflexive in order to make culture question itself. His appreciation of LSD, satanism, BDSM, and horror instead of religion is mostly comical, and what emerges as most important is his perspective of seeing society as corrupt to the core and approaching collapse due to its own decrepit motives. Manson likes outsiders, because he thinks a person has to be on the outside to have an intelligent thought, to be something other than corrupt, and to be unique, which is a very large portion of how art functions, to make and show something distinct and original that lets the viewer have a new experience and see through a different set of assumptions.

He was touring in support of Heaven Upside Down as his latest album, but one that’s been out long enough to leave lots of rooms for a more expansive set, and it sees a bit of negotiation with classic and goth rock instead of being a straightforward industrial assault like his first few classic albums. It’s a direction that started on the album before this, and both are a solid return of Manson as a leading creator of dark sounds and social commentary, but the newer album is particularly revelatory. While The Pale Emperor already began to hint at the vampire like mystique that Peter Murphy carries, Heaven Upside Down suggests that we live in hell, but that it can at least be a good time. Manson positions himself more as a classic for underground sounds with his mainstream success rather than the architect of strange outsider sounds that he was on the albums that have become classic for him. The chaotic, ornate, and grinding percussion on Beautiful People still sounds like no other song and manages to take a simple musical motif and shape it into a completely bizarre sonic assault that is irresistible and scary at the same time, just like the idiocy of the wealthy superficial people he satirizes in his song. Mechanical Animals sounded like a sonic assault, while Holy Wood and The Golden Age of Grotesque are underrated experiments with the electronic techniques plus grinding guitar attack that made Manson famous.

The last two albums by contrast negotiate a classic rock ethos with dark shadowy sounds conveying deep cadence and subtle echos. Small sounds have more meaning on these albums, and Manson shows an appreciation of gothic sounds that goes back to clear goth rock territory but with some astoundingly good use of synths and samples that seem as original as the deadly rhythm of Beautiful People that sounded like a war cry from a dance club on the edge of hell. It’s a delight, because there is not enough good goth rock around, and it is very hard to create those sounds as well as the great classic bands like Bauhaus. Manson shows that he knows those classics well and can bring out some of the core aesthetics in a very updated way by selectively adding industrial techniques. Heaven Upside Down sounds magically positioned between 2017 and 1982, as one of the most edgy albums of the last few years while also showing masterful use of much older sounds. Indeed, the opening of Saturnalia sounds wonderfully reminiscent of the eerie sounds Bauhaus opened some of their best songs with.

Heaven Upside Down is a successful album with subtle haunting echoes amidst the anthemic rock that fans have embraced even while the raging passion of Manson fans is still directed towards his early work, partly because it is hard to easily classify his later albums. They are part of the larger overwhelming persona that is Manson as well as his longer journey. Everyone at his shows likes these albums a great deal, but favorites and interpretations vary quite a lot among fans. In the end, he is too amorphous and original to be pinned down to one sound and has managed to cover more terrain of dark rock sounds than his critics seem to have caught on to, able to look back with a haunting vision over a long career of ups and downs over which he stands out as one of the most important musicians of the last few decades. Heaven Upside Down puts him at the top of a heap of people who see culture as broken with dark sounds given as a way to comment on it and see through the wreckage of western culture, and the turn towards more traditional and basic dark rock with its very universal language is exactly what he needed to revitalize his perspective.

SAY10 is a standout track on the album and was a standout performed live. It might have been the most fun song of the night alongside Beautiful People and was easily one of my favorite sing alongs of any concert, with lines like, “You should pray now, is it above, or is it below?”, carrying a wonderfully twisted irony. Beyond the metaphors, Tattooed in Reverse seems to hint at the demonic sigil on his left hand, recognizably taken from Lesser Key of Solomon, and KILL4ME has a beautiful dark romantic sound that was even better performed live. Manson is second to none in taking something evil and making it sound good and beautiful, a statement of loyalty and defiance to a hostile world spoken metaphorically rather than conveying any sense of violence in the music. The sounds are all about love and connection while the lyrics offer a deceptive facade. JE$U$ CRI$I$ is a comedic look at Manson’s career and not caring about the religious panic that his music brought about. He writes songs to fight and to fuck to, and he rather enjoy himself than worry about people panicking over it, but he’s at the point that he is willing to put up a fight when he gets attacked, and the dollar signs in the title of the song point to the insincerity of the religious criticisms which are often tied to powerful capitalists. Blood Honey is a genuinely beautiful song reflecting on the way some people want Manson when things are a mess, leaving him with little recourse but to court controversy. His blood might seem like honey to some when he is hurt, and he is willing to suffer out of love. It’s a beautiful song, and the impact and irony is much stronger after the Christ reference of the previous song. The album has a striking and impressive play and progression between all of the songs and stands as a powerful and coherent work. Heaven Upside Down is my favorite Manson album since the early days, and the songs are beautifully layered for repeat listening and reward careful reflection and deconstruction.

His most influential work, Antichrist Superstar, still stands today as a landmark classic album and one of the most unique recordings anyone has made, a sonic affront to a whole society and a challenging testimony to what industrial music was capable of at that time. Heaven Upside Down advances that legacy, offering glimpses of the dark melodic calm within a storm of rock and roll that Peter Murphy masterfully conveys, the classic roots of rock, and the antichrist himself brought to loud proper pure rock form. It’s a remarkable recording and a welcome return of Manson as one the best musicians in the world. I should close this by saying that Jyrki from The 69 Eyes told me back in February about the new Manson album which he had just listened to being an excellent rock trio album that is also negotiating rock tradition, apparently even more so than Heaven Upside Down. My next review will be of the great new album West End by The 69 Eyes, and I look forward to the new Manson album.


Night Club – Scary World – music review

Night Club – Scary World – music review

Night Club is one of the most exciting and interesting of smaller industrial projects, a dark fusion of dreamy sounds with bright electronic edges and frenetic beats. Composed of Emily Kavanaugh and Mark Brooks, the duo make infectiously catchy industrial songs that sound like a dark funeral for pop music. It’s as though the catchy electronic beats leave pop lost somewhere in a 21st century coffin while Emily hails Satan on the microphone with Mark hammering away at his keyboard and samples. They represent true underground club sounds without any compromise as they have worked independently for nearly a decade, improving themselves through self releases, small venue shows, and important opening spots. One of the more intelligent and original bands around, they have a unique presence as truly original outsiders following their own intuitions.

They began with three EP’s that are provocative shorter works. They don’t have the layered sophistication of the two albums that followed, but they are industrial punk style punches with a clarity that belied what was to come from them. Their debut as album length artists came with the excellent Requiem for Romance, an album that I just could not turn off and that plays like a dark soliloquy for the death of love, or at least the death of romantic optimism. That brought them frequent touring as an opening band, most notably for Combichrist, but that album has now been followed by the even more ambitious Scary World and their first headline tour. 2019 was a big year for Night Club, and there is good reason to be excited about what this band is contributing and to hope that they develop much further.

Scary World is a stunning and diverse album with a sharp range compressed into a tight running time. Both albums are around 30 minutes and seem to echo punk with the ability to do a lot in a short time by being very to the point, but they have a layered sophistication that borrows from many styles of music, and the themes on the album are broad. As the title implies, it examines the world of today from a variety of perspectives, and while the result resembles a horror movie, finding out the world is scary never becomes one singular theme, because so many perspectives are shown. There are many facets to reality, and Night Club simplifies that world far less than do a lot of gothic bands, making their insights more engaging and diverse in tone than some of the more frequent tirades.

The tour with Combichrist showed an exciting band developing and provided one of the most energetic openers I’ve seen. Night Club got to use intricate and dramatic lighting thanks to Combichrist, and Emily got to dance across somewhat larger stages than they would play on their own. The band’s presentation has Emily in front with the mic dancing to place emphasis on parts of their songs while Mark seems comparatively sedate in the back on keys and mixing with his black leather jacket. The ideal venue for that sort of presentation is a mid size stage. It gives Emily room to move around but is not too big to limit audience interaction or to drown out having only two people on stage. A huge stage might make it hard to put enough emphasis on the way she brings the songs to life as one person traveling the entire area, and Mark is meant to be noticed in the back. One of the running jokes I have had with Night Club fans is that most of us would fall over after 10 minutes of trying to move like Emily. It’s a performance of serious athleticism, and it’s important, because industrial duos are very pressured to find a way to make their performances engaging. Night Club manage this brilliantly with a very distinct aesthetic that can easily turn into cult adoration for the band. This is made better by Mark being the director of the band’s videos, featuring such original oddities as giant evil rabbits and a straightjacketed singer blasting lyrics about insanity. So while he is relatively still in the back of the stage, and Emily is bouncing all over the place, there likely was some directing and blocking involved in building the show. It’s performance art on the cheap, but the raw purity of that is one of the best ways to experience music as a distilled art form. 

Their headline tour of last year pummeled smaller clubs with one hour shows with a very direct attack but much more happiness and optimism than the band typically conveys. They were clearly excited to be headliners, and the sense of accomplishment is much deserved. Night Club has risen to be a unique independent band with a direction and a voice that are entirely their own and that doesn’t seek to replicate anything else in any sense. Like with Blaqk Audio, the band is very diverse in its electronic range and does not seem limited only to industrial sounds. They love the dark 80s sensibilities of their genre and the ability to draw on synth pop and new wave, but they clearly are much broader and have a vision far beyond present sounds, enough that it makes their genre hard to classify even though it is most obviously industrial.

After their three very interesting and deeply underground EP’s, they worked on a soft and haunting soundtrack for Moonbeam City, an animated television show for which they constructed a beautiful range of happy songs with an ironic dark edge. The album is a testament to beautiful sounds with dark edges. This is provocative for fitting the history of art so well. Well before pop came along with its candy coated message of nonsense and medicated delusional happiness, beauty and horror were more traditionally mixed together. Some of Rembrandt’s best canvases show beauty of shadow and light against horrifying violence, and before that medieval painting offered dark but beautifully constructed depictions of human brutality. The Moonbeam City soundtrack seems like it landed from those much older artistic traditions mixed with modern musical technique. Subtle and light sounds mesh delicately against one another as though they are commenting on the happier parts of life through irony and bits of haunting sadness, and there is an undeniable jazz influence on the album which makes the range of the band far more impressive. The series the soundtrack was for did not survive long, but the music deserves its own chance and does not sound like any other soundtrack.

Requiem for Romance moved them forward from that very unique soundtrack with searing and complex songs about, as the title says, romance dying in the face of reality having become a harsh world, as though the 21st century has the descendants of The Beatles with their catchy songs about love transmuted into the postindustrial technological apocalypse of Blade Runner with its cold surfaces. The album motif of a dagger seems to signify both the killing of love and a ferocious response to a dark world. It is one of the best post 80s motifs I can find, showing a world where expectations are more dour, but where this can bring real fire in making one’s own statement amidst that. Dear Enemy and Psychosuperlover are standouts for this. Both songs depict disappointing people and personal interactions, but there is a clear sense of finding oneself in the process and of rising above a hollow superficiality that seems to have infected postmodern life with its selfish inclinations.

Scary World then arrives as an enormous achievement that brings together everything from their previous work and leaves enough open avenues that it is easy to be excited both for the album and for how the band is continually developing. Night Club is one of the best examples of the great things that can happen when resources are limited but inspiration and talent are high, a focused brilliance of distinct song writing and execution. The new album is a large statement with lots of variation between songs happening in an intense blur of only 30 minutes. While Requiem for Romance showed accomplished writing and diverse sounds along a common theme, Scary World expands this into a much larger and varied concept, offering a wide range of commentary on civilization within its compressed running time. It would not be surprising if their short album lengths are related to the difficulty of completing an album independently, but what is unique is that they use that time so expertly. The result is 30 minutes of music that is more pleasant to listen to dozens of times to unpack the sounds and ideas than to laboriously go through a common overly long album only a few times. Other bands could learn from the clarity and efficiency they achieve.

Emily’s voice is at its best yet while Mark manages to make his instrumentation take on remarkable subtlety. A shift towards subtle mid tempo sounds mixed in against their faster beats is made apparent immediately with Scary World. The songs are often slower than the previous album but with a deep sense of foreboding. Like a twisted fairy tale, Emily warns people to beware the world around them, filled with predators, liars, and warped desires. The album then seems a bit like a nocturnal descent, but with bright edges built around warped psychology. With songs like Schizophrenic, Candy Coated Suicide, and Therapy all touching on mental illness, a jagged self is portrayed but with irony and humor. Blood on Your Blade shows someone being used, but the irony of the song is that Emily sings about it like she doesn’t care, because she has learned that other people’s flaws of being abusive are not her own. The world is scary, and we learn to be cautious enough to laugh at the absurdity. The song Vampires makes this much clearer as much of the world turns to be like this familiar gothic trope. Indeed, most of America is filled with people who prey on us for money while politicians and business people act like it’s fine. The best thing one can do about is to head out into a good night club, have fun, and not care about the surrounding obscenity of such a scary world. The album is one the best things that came out in 2019.

His Master’s Voice – movie review

His Master’s Voice – movie review

His Master’s Voice is a provocative science fiction film from Turkey that places the genre in a much more intellectual setting than is the norm. It is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, as was Andrei Tarkovsky’s important classic film, Solaris. Like the film from Tarkovsky, this work asks far deeper questions than does the typically entertaining science fiction film. Tarkovsky used science fiction to ask deeper intellectual questions. With a deep sense of aesthetic symbolism and mysticism, Tarkovsky would embed complex visual ideas in every frame of his movies. Solaris featured a talking ocean, and the director of His Master’s Voice mentioned this to me after the screening as an intriguing way to view otherness and a much more open palette of considering alien life than is the case with more traditional science fiction. 

The director is very much able to view his subject matter from a less than obvious position. In a post screening Q&A, he told an interesting story about where he was from. Gyorgy Palfi moved from Turkey to Mexico City after Erdogan came to power, because the political environment in his home country had become repressive and scary. Since then, things have opened up, and he is returning home. It is an intriguing back story for someone who has made a film with such a wandering narrative.

The film examines multiple narratives intersecting with one another in very disjointed encounters. It seems to operate almost as a collage of different narrative perspectives. While Palfi is interested in the question of responding to contact from an alien civilization, he treats this as a problem of dealing with normal interaction between very typical human beings. Individuals are separated from one another psychologically and linguistically and have imperfect ties to culture. So how our own narratives relate to one another is always embedded in complex ruptures and intertwining, a moving system of encountering otherness through a larger field of discourse, life, and civilization. 

In this film, the disconnect between the protagonist and his father becomes metaphorical for seeking communication from far outside of humanity. The voice of the father becomes a metaphor for alien life. So Palfi is showing us that as individuals we seek meaningful dialogue from without, and as a species we do the same thing seeking for a communication from something different from ourselves. This makes a great deal of sense psychologically, as it basically studies an innately human structure of looking for meaning in language from outside ourselves. 

The director is excited about the possibility of humanity one day encountering life from off of our own planet, and his intent with the film is caught between realistic science making this very plausible and the complexity of how both oneself and culture as a whole could deal with the discovery. The movie then is a very intelligent dialogue with contemporary psychology and philosophy, especially of the European variety with thinkers like Lacan and Derrida who study complex narrative, breaks in language, and how culture shapes our understanding of our own very unstable identities. This is a film where science meets a sophisticated view of culture and where the fictional part of science is meant to be imaginative exploration of serious possibilities. 

The odds of life or its remains being found on a moon or planet within our own solar system look very reasonable, and as expanding NASA missions learn more about the astronomical environment around us, evidence points towards what should have been obvious: nature is uniform. So what exists on earth as chemical, biological, and geological processes almost certainly exists in other places, and probably in lots of places given the scale of the universe. The real scandal is not that life can exist somewhere else, but that human thinkers have been unable to process the information due to having a self centered worldview. Barring some bizarrely deluded commitments, chemistry, biology, and physics work sufficiently as sciences that there are probably similar things to find throughout the universe. Photos from probes sent to Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan show what looks like amazing variations on what is already familiar on earth, and that is from an absurdly small sample size out of trillions of planets and moons.

One thing that stood out to the filmmaker as important when we spoke after the screening was the development of quantum computing and AI. This itself opens the door to new possible types of intelligence that are alien to our own. The movie begins with a view of computer code, and this is a striking attempt to show a language we all encounter daily as somewhat alien. Programming is not so dense that someone who knows a computer language can’t tell what code does, but it is complex enough that there are unintended parts that are only known once code is deployed. That’s why bugs exist in software. As the complexity and speed of computers increases, the unknown portions of programming grow, and there can indeed be questions about computer languages posing issues as an otherness that we don’t quite grasp. Eventually they may well evolve into very sophisticated forms of AI. 

I would point to Jacques Derrida’s musings in The Animal that Therefore I Am showing us how alien, but also how similar, we already are in the face of animals. Given that alien life is likely to simply be a different configuration of biochemical processes from our own organisms, I would suggest that there is already alien life all around being taken for granted: every other species of animal on earth. Rather than connecting with the intriguing difference in thought that animal intelligence presents, human beings have very callously undertaken a process of destroying their own planet. Pet owners and other animal lovers all over the world are aware of being around other intelligences. So one thing I appreciate about the film is its willingness to challenge what “intellect” might be. I fear the reality is that human society is so motivated by economic exploitation of other beings that it refuses to acknowledge the obvious existence of important types of life besides the human being, and that insistence on living inside an enclosed bubble of language and culture is exactly what Palfi poses would be ruptured by contact with extraterrestrial life. 

Perspective, language, thought, and varying types of potential life are themselves so complex and multifaceted that there is not one narrative, and it is not easy for human beings to get themselves around the likelihood of other kinds of intelligence. Ample evidence shows that other organisms are quite intelligent already, but we can’t share a narrative with dolphins or with cats. The lack of communication or a linguistic interaction leaves the false impression that only human beings think. 

The encounter of another species from another planet with technology would certainly be an eye opener, and given the range of possibilities, age of the universe, and the absurdly rapid rate that computers have already advanced, the possibilities of how advanced some other life could be are endless. So it is reasonable to be excited about AI and quantum computing opening new domains of thought and technology that could lead the way to contact with other intelligences. 

How that happens can vary from Palfi’s point of view. The filmmaker was aware of Tarkovsky’s interests in mysticism and agreed that this is a way of conceiving otherness in the form of intelligence. This question of otherness is really the guiding issue of the film, otherness and voices. The voice of the father and the speaking as a breaking into the world of another, or a disruption of the expectations of the world formed by a civilization if the speaking comes from something outside of it, is the central point of concern for the film. 

The director said that the film went through many changes during editing to the point of having unveiled multiple narratives with heavy deviation from the screenplay that he started with. He discovered his film through the editing and chose the most straightforward version of the movie as the final. Yet, he likes the multiplicity of stories that the editing room discovered and plans to release other variations of the film over the internet. So there are many ways that this ruptured discourse of a voice from outside can happen, and many more narratives to be seen from the same film.

His Master’s Voice screened at the 42nd Denver Film Festival.

Blaqk Audio – music review

Blaqk Audio – music review

Blaqk Audio is a standout EBM and industrial band with deep electronic roots that explore 1980’s sounds better than just about any other project in the genre. That is something of a surprise, because it’s a spinoff and side project from the notable hard rock band AFI, which veers between metal, punk, and new wave with engaging and catchy rock aggressiveness. AFI is a very successful band with a large following that gives Davey Havok and Jade Puget the luxury of being able to do what they want with side projects. Blaqk Audio is their most important work to my ears, with accomplished songwriting and dense but catchy electronic experiments that are energetic and irresistible.

Sometimes I think that industrial needs to get some inspiration from the success and frenetic energy of EDM, dubstep, DnB and varying styles of electronica outside its dark gothic rock roots. Blaqk Audio is fully up to the task and is as industrial as anything can get without ever being limited to that. This makes for a vastly fun performance band, even with only two people. The high energy and enthusiasm is irresistible and infects the audience into an organic whole that seems to have landed on an alien spaceship from the early 1980s. Davey Havok adds to that by being one of the most charismatic frontmen in music. He has so much charisma as a performer that you really have to see it to believe it, and anyone who hasn’t already seen this band live is in for a shock at how accomplished and friendly a performance artist he is.

Blaqk Audio
Blaqk Audio at Bluebird Theater in Denver, 2019

The new album itself, Only Things We Love, is a highpoint for the band. It is darker, more bass driven with velvety production, and a perfect expression of 80’s dark club sounds brought into the present. Part of the overall excitement with this project is that they have veered between experimenting with traditional EBM sounds from industrial music and blending those with 80’s style new wave sounds. Industrial is greatly indebted to the 80’s, but it has the pitfall of becoming such a subgenera that it can be repetitive and dense without connecting enough to larger musical trends. Blaqk Audio directly disrupts that both with such a successful incorporation of the best 80’s sounds and also with the mainstream appeal that Davey and Jade’s other project, AFI, carries.

Thanks to the success of their other project, Davey and Jade seem able to do anything they want with Blaqk Audio, and it lets them indulge in some of the most artistically excellent areas of industrial music. The sounds are dark, but the themes are psychological, focusing often on desire (as did much 80’s new wave), and everything is positive and friendly dance floor music. There isn’t the apocalyptic sensibility that some industrial bands have been expressing. I confess sympathy for bands with post apocalyptic ideas, because the environmental status of the planet seems to be going there, but clubbing is supposed to be fun and positive, and Blaqk Audio capture that disruptive 80’s bleak hopefulness very well.

The most fascinating thing about the band is that they seem like a time machine that goes back to the 80’s, but they are also very forward looking and manage to link that with very modern and progressive sounds that look to the future of electronic music. It’s a reasonable perspective on an important artistic movement that in many respects was born in the 80’s but has a great deal more still to say. Given the amazing growth that electronic music scenes besides industrial and dark wave have seen, I tend to think this is a correct assessment of the state of the most innovative music in 2019. Growth in areas such as dubstep, electro house, DnB, EDM, and other exciting electronic club genres has left experimentation with electronic sounds a furiously exciting area to explore. The importance of rock as both a place of musical tradition and subversion melds with that experimentation through industrial sounds, but Blaqk Audio distills the most important essence of all those trends especially well. Davey and Jade’s project in some ways reminds me of the way that Japanese art often is able to refine larger traditions to essential elements and refine them down to a very beautiful simplicity. Nothing is excessive, but everything is clear, organized, and beautiful.

Their earlier albums are all standouts, though with a bit less of a dirty sound, perhaps as they tried to reinvent 80’s sounds they enjoyed with clarity. CexCells, with its clever play on words in suggesting desire shaped into electronics, was a landmark surprise album to come as a side project from AFI. It also fit Davey and Jade as musicians who have an obvious love for the 80’s. The surprise though was the skill of creating an album around electronic beats and samples when they were already so prominent in rock. It stands out as very experimental and a bold statement of simplicity. Bright Black Heaven stirred things up with a darker vision and a nod to apocalyptic tendencies in EBM, but with Davey and Jade’s characteristically positive sentiments as a solution to the pessimism. They seem to find love and togetherness to be perfectly good solutions to negativity and bad events, and the catchiness of the songs makes it sometimes feel like an electronic duo version of The Beatles, guys who really get rock and roll and bring it into a charismatic presentation of velvety sounds with perfect unforgettable beats. Material perhaps was a most complete vision with a bit more ground being covered and more of a synthesis of musical styles, and it does a good job of anticipating what Only Things We Love accomplishes.

One 1980’s new wave touchpoint that I can’t ignore in assessing their album is the excellent Flowers of Romance by Public Image Limited. PiL is too often overlooked in discussions of punk and new wave as precursors to EBM, because they are somewhat too radical to digest compared to some of the more catchy bands. John Lydon’s project after the Sex Pistols took his punk sensibilities and morphed them into the post punk experimentation that would come after with catchier but complex and less angry songs that acknowledged superficiality in culture. With grinding percussion driven songs that seem to head in all directions through abstract loops and bits of keyboard, it showed a possibility of rock experimentation breaking the confines of its own aesthetic without dropping the basic elements. In some ways it captures the very idea of post punk. Where punk managed to simplify rock expression to its raw essentials, like an emotive punch from the most basic elements, post punk took that distilled vision and turned it into experimentation with breaking the most basic rules of rock. At the same time, post punk maintains rock structure and allows songs to be catchy enough to bring it all together. That seems to be the kind of tapestry on Only Things We Love, an album that takes 80’s experimentation as its starting point but builds dark jagged electronic layers above it that is haunting throughout and is driven by velvety percussion that manages to tie together the oddest of sounds.

The opening track of Infinite Skin is a delightful mix of danger and fun. The lyrics hint at an endless list of people to kill, but it is really a song about endless connection and the dichotomy of love and death. “I stopped a little short, a little short of something right,” suggests not pursuing something when risk can pay off. “Killing” is transformed into connecting or changing and becomes a metaphor for living by making an impact. The Viles is about yearning and staying together. “I will keep you here with me,” is sung against lyrics about risk and hiding. The world is dangerous in these songs, but that is half the fun, because it is a context to go out and find connection under dark shadows, danger, and neon lights. Davey and Jade are smart enough to see dark times, but they love art and clubbing for the good that it brings to that kind of situation.

Unstained sounds beautifully situated in the middle of the 80’s with gliding segues sung between lines and airy beats against bright keyboards with the continual sense of dark but sensual danger and risk that the whole album carries. “You’re making me so short of breath,” carries passion against exhaustion and frenetic life. Muscle and Matter is a profound coming of age song about how one changes in ways that don’t make sense. The music carries a sense of wonder as Davey sings about it being hard to believe that we all lived as much smaller creatures earlier in life. “It’s hard to believe in muscle and matter. It’s hard to believe that I was a boy.” Such brief lyrics capture something so profound as impressionistic glimpses tell about growing up through the rest of the song. “Conspiring with cats,” sounds dark and gothic, but it also sounds like a child playing with pets. It’s a beautiful play on different meanings. The keyboard sounds innocent, and it is a bit astounding that so much can be conveyed in only a few minutes of music. Caroline in the Clip is about a girl, and comes across as a beautiful collage of memory, fantasy, and connection. It’s about someone, but with truly great lyricism, it could also be anyone, which in turn makes it a perfect club song. Maker is about separation and sad disconnection, but it is left open ended. “I can’t love you anymore,” again has two senses. Either he he can’t love her any longer, or else he has done as much as he can and needs to be appreciated, or it’s a bit of both. Summer’s Out of Sight is about the end of something as well, fatalism against percussion and bass that make us want to find meaning.

OK, Alex is completely addictive as it describes an irresistible but exasperating person. “Blood, sweat, no tears,” sets up an exhausting adventure with someone who might be crazy but could be worth it. Enemies Forever sounds like love turning into conflict that can’t be quit. Dark Arcades is positively haunting about what has been lost from the past. It conjures up a time when arcade games were common as a metaphor for other things that have vanished from life. Music dies. Games get unplugged. Still, we play. Dark Times at the Berlin Wall recalls the 80s even more with something that literally doesn’t exist afterwards. A symbol of division, the fall of the wall is seen as an opening of freedom, but the 21st century has sadly seen the optimism that went with that era replaced by endless wars and technological oppression. The mechanistic sounds bring images of machinery. “You’ve been speaking with tired gods. I’ve been conferring with cats,” has to be one of my favorite lyrical turns. Davey sings about losing his way but finding it by looking elsewhere than the ordinary. Matrimony and Dust closes the album with a song about love and loss, a theme that beautifully summarizes the album, which really is about the value of love and the everyday profundity of it. A girl rips her jeans, and that is as ordinary as it gets, but its a segue to more. The album is romantic about everyday things and celebrates a love of life against darkness and loss. It is as perfect as EBM will ever get.

Davey on stage is a delight.  He dances and communicates with the audience exceptionally well and just has a natural ability at doing exactly that. He is a master performer and vocalist with the ability to perfectly match what’s happening in his songs while still talking to the audience in between, reaching out to play around with people, and dancing in between lines. Besides fun club dancing, he places very good inflected emphasis on parts of his songs that makes them more dramatic live. It reminds me a bit of how Alissa White Gluz is able to create very powerful dramatic emphasis on parts of the songs that Michael Amott writes for Arch Enemy. That band has a fiery place in protest metal that gives it such an attack that ties it forever to a metal subculture that understands Swedish death metal, but for Blaqk Audio, the goal is to be as inclusive as possible while capturing important underground dance trends with bits of new wave. The show early in 2019 at Bluebird Theatre saw the band focusing on their new album while also drawing quite a bit on their previous work. It was a high energy show that showcased the best sounds and seemed much more like an art night of electronic music than something insisting to be an underground scene.

I also got to see them DJ, and it was one of the best DJ experiences ever. They played predominantly 80’s songs with special emphasis on The Cure and Depeche Mode, and the energy level in the club was high with one of the friendliest audiences I’ve been in. Davey sang some of the songs without a microphone, just to entertain everyone, and danced, and they made for a great and very open club night at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox. Jade’s mixing with just a laptop and no serious DJ controller was delightful, and the way they crossed between new wave, goth rock, industrial sounds, and electronica was skillful at bringing the past into the present by mining some of the best 80’s sounds and showcasing how they built elements that are used in some of the most progressive new music. AFI also sits somewhat in the background of this, because  they have moved increasingly towards new wave sounds with the last couple of albums. While that main project of Davey and Jade is an impressive contemporary rock achievement, Blaqk Audio sounds like perfection brought to some very important sounds that in other hands often provide less full of a vision and less of an inclusive world of sound. These albums do a lot to show how electronic music is likely to evolve in coming years, a true combination of dark things with beautiful things and a very open but always atmospheric palette.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – movie review

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – movie review

Some remarks from George Takei at Denver Pop Culture Con prompted me to revisit the classic film, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The film came out in 1991 at the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had just been dismantled in the very same year, and the writers built an allegory that did an excellent job of mirroring contemporary political events. This was also the last Star Trek movie with the original cast. So it is trying to provide a summary of the series and Gene Roddenberry’s ideas that can serve as a strong conclusion for the show.

George Takei’s comments about both Gene Roddenberry’s vision and this film had a surprising depth to them. He talked about how he grew up in an internment camp for Japanese people that was set up by the U.S. government. He had essentially no rights, and his entire family was under the control of soldiers who treated him as the enemy because of his race.

Takei placed this against Roddenberry’s ideas, and it was one of most moving sets of comments I’ve ever seen. He described Roddenberry’s vision as one of humanity working together and ignoring superficial differences between people to find a common good and improve things for everyone. The starship Enterprise was meant to represent earth, and the show’s idea was about bringing people together to solve problems of the human species. With environmental collapse posing an imminent threat to life and civilization, these ideas are even more prescient now than when the show was made.

Star Trek VI explores Roddenberry’s ideas in the Cold War context very well. The relevance after nearly 30 years is stunning, and this is deepened by the extent to which Russia and the former Soviet Union continue to impact American politics and security issues, with tensions that started out of suspicion of American intentions after the invasion of Iraq and following efforts to expand NATO into East Europe, the most extreme tension happening over Ukraine and then spilling into retaliation from Russia through hacking.

The film deals with race, and it has an engagingly unsubtle way of doing so. Roddenberry’s original show foresaw a future where racial conflict no longer exists, but when Nicholas Meyer made The Undiscovered Country, he was clearly bothered by the extent to which it still existed, and he set up a conflict between this, expectations of a better world after the Soviet collapse, and Roddenberry’s vision of a perfect future. In many ways, the film foreshadowed the present, where a large part of society expected racial issues to have been overcome by now and are shocked by the extent to which these conflicts are very much still part of the present and have troublingly reemerged in sometimes extreme ways. The twofold reaction that is most obvious is on the one hand disappointment over liberal dogma turning out to be fiction and revulsion at conservative pursuits of militancy and racism. Both sides are basically a disaster, and the film sees a world where nothing works except the heroism and good intentions of its central characters.

Indeed, the end of the Cold War had a lot to do with how the world looks today along the lines of that issue and many others. The expectation of the 1990s was that nuclear war would not happen, that peace would prevail, that racism would become obsolete, that environmental problems would be worked out, and that capitalism would last forever. Those views have collapsed in a sadly violent way after the September 11 attacks, Iraq War, 2008 financial crisis, growing environmental collapse due especially to global warming, deforestation, and biodiversity reduction, and Russia conflicts. The Undiscovered Country was well received at the time, but it deserves new analysis in light of how accurately it predicted a disturbingly violent backlash against the progressive ideas that were prominent with the Cold War’s dissolution. It offers stunning echoes of crises that are happening in the present.

Nicholas Meyer returned as director for this film having previously directed what is usually considered the best film with the original cast, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That film was responsible for reviving the entire series in many respects. George Takei surprised me by going over the story of what happened after the show was cancelled and thanked long time fans for reviving it. That’s a history worth briefly recounting here. The original show ran for two seasons, and was expensive as well as very odd for its time, and CBS cancelled it. Then a letter writing campaign from fans brought it back for a third season. Then it was cancelled yet again. Then it became a hit in syndication, and yet another letter writing campaign led to a film being made.

So with that, Star Trek: The Motion Picture brought back the franchise. It was a good movie but not entirely successful at bringing Trek to the mainstream. Still more letters were written by fans for another film. Finally, Star Trek II brought in a highly intelligent director who spent a lot of time researching the show and working to create its most crucial qualities in a work of cinema, and it is probably the point at which the show reached a level of popularity that made it a somewhat permanent phenomenon that keeps finding new stories, new movies, new casts, and new series in what seems like an endless space opera.

Leonard Nimoy directed the next two films which continued the story from the second film, and Star Trek saw three very successful films in a row. That success led to the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and because Nimoy had been so successful as a director, Paramount made Star Trek V under the direction of William Shatner. Sadly, it turned out to be the only original cast film that collapsed with audiences and critics. It had bold and smart ideas, but perhaps too many of them shoved into one movie, and Shatner was reputedly very nice and accommodating to everyone on the set out of love for the show, possibly with the price of not controlling the production as tightly as needed. He also had to deal with the studio creating some issues with reduced budgeting and had to work with a special effects house that wasn’t adept at the material. The result is a sort of meandering guilty pleasure that didn’t leave the Trek film series in the best position. So Paramount wanted a better conclusion for the the original cast and brought back Nicholas Meyer to direct with Leonard Nimoy as a major contributor.

That turned out to be an excellent choice, and the writing found inspiration in the pairing of Rodenberry’s ideas with the Cold War. This is especially potent, because the series as developed in the 1960’s during the height of the Cold War had the Klingons metaphorically standing in for the Soviets, and the entire show is heavily infused with 60’s ideas. That romantic and futuristic optimism during the economic boom of a world still being rebuilt after World War II gave way to grittier realities that would eventually lead to our present, and the film handles both sides of this adeptly enough to build an inherent conflict between them. In essence, Meyer’s film builds classic drama from the conflict of Roddenberry’s vision with depressing observations of the world.

Secrecy plays a major role in the film, and we see that the powerful often operate in the dark to bring to light impulses that would not be acceptable if they were held out in full view. Shakespeare is also used very well, and indeed his plays often portray similar conflicts, those between the intentions of the powerful and the natural good of humanity. The Elizabethan England that was Shakespeare’s central place of reference was a more orderly world of expectations but one that dealt still with gritty chaos in the streets of London. Certainly in his plays, the powerful plotting of the nobility and royals in their castles have motives that can be very twisted away from the relative harmony that he saw in nature, and so in this film we see elites within the military and political circles plotting together to ensure that profitable conflicts will continue, at the expense of everyone else. 

The cinematography is uniformly beautiful with very skillful and gritty choices for dark photography. It does create a more realistic atmosphere both for space and for paranoia , and it can be seen as a predecessor to the very dark and gritty turn that science fiction would take in the 21st century through examples like the recreation of Battlestar Galactica.

George Takei also recounted the film from Sulu’s perspective and described his efforts to create a series for himself as captain of the Excelsior. This turned very amusing with his appreciation of the film going well into a shot by shot analysis which to say the least, puts Sulu in the most positive and heroic light that could be read into the film. It was a deeply moving speaking engagement, and what stood out the most is that Take takes Gene Roddenberry’s ideas very seriously as offering something important for humanity that is needed now more than ever.

The fourth film, made in 1986 also helps to show the seriousness of this. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home takes a serious look at the environmental crisis, but it’s worth remembering here that the 1980’s was the high point of the environmental movement. Since then, that optimism and seriousness of trying to save both the planet and natural areas have been replaced by dire predictions and empirical observations showing very little to be left of a healthy ecosystem. Insect populations which are essential to the ability to do something as simple as grow food have declined so severely that mass extinction and complete collapse are possible within decades. Sadly, with Roddenberry dead, we are left with his powerful ideas but in need of someone with a creative vision as powerful as his at translating those into narrative art.

Combichrist – music review

Combichrist – music review

Combichrist has been making industrial music since Andy LaPlegua started working as a solo electronic artist with the very experimental The Joy of Gunz. The second album, Everybody Hates You, is a landmark for the genre and has some of the most memorable electronic songs ever created. The same can be said of Icon of Coil which also involved him and was an industrial club standard during its time and still sees some amazing reunions in Europe. Some years back, Andy decided to move towards industrial metal and enhance the live shows with other band members. Now industrial metal Combichrist has been going strong for years with Eric 13 on guitar and formerly with Joe Letz on drums for many years. Other collaborators have included second drummer Nick Rossi, former guitarist Abbey Nex, keyboardists Zmarr and Elliott Berlin, and new drummers Will Spod and Dane White. Everyone who has been part of the band has done serious work in gothic and industrial music, and the live sound has become a powerful, drum heavy, ferocious attack on every venue they play.

The recent This Is Where Death Begins finds the band using a balanced mixture of electronics and traditional instruments that combines industrial metal with the earlier sound. After seeing them several times, their show last year at the Oriental in Denver was one the best and has just been following by a mind blowing show at Marquis Theater with the two new drummers supporting the forthcoming One Fire album, which is discussed below. Elliott on keyboards for the show at the Oriental gave the band a return of synthesizers that really elevated the songs, and Nick played second drums against Joey, giving them a ferocious attack. Andy got to use the wider stage at that venue for the running around he likes to do, and Eric headed into the audience with his guitar and was completely in his element. I caught Nick after he stage dived, and Andy’s love for running across the stage worked incredibly well with the wide stage design. This venue has seen lots of industrial and gothic shows and hosted some of Denver’s best shows last year, including Combichrist, The Crüxshadows, ohGr, Killing Joke, Clan of Xymox, and VNV Nation with some of their best ever shows. The wide stage and shallow depth of the floor in front make for a perfect environment for goth performances, and bands like Combichrist that interact well with their audiences benefit from this.


The classic electronic songs sound especially different live, because Andy gives lots of freedom to his instrumentalists in interpreting them. So evolving lineups sound especially exciting, and the dual drummers with spooky 80s sounding keyboards felt a lot like being both pummeled and elevated by industrial sounds with unexpected changes throughout the show that keep the music alive and new. Andy is one of the best performers in music. He gets totally transformed by the songs during a show and is able to interact with his audience without missing a beat and tends to elevate his performances as the shows get more interactive through the night.

The background for his band is very interesting, because it was originally a pure electronic project that he created entirely himself from Norway. Then he moved to America and got interested in using industrial metal to fill out a more powerful live lineup. The first album like that was for a video game, but the importance of Norwegian black metal obviously filters its way into this. Metal is a haven for dark sounds and similar themes to industrial, and the experiment of fusing this with the early electronic albums has been a good one. It also makes a lot of practical sense, because Combichrist always draws large crowds, and having a top notch live band makes that easier than industrial acts that perform with far less, sometimes only a laptop and a singer in the case of the most underground electronic artists. Andy has managed to grow the Combichrist audience with his excellent live band, and he has also managed to solidify the industrial scene with this. It makes him the best industrial artist to see live along with Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails.

with Andy LaPlegua of Combichrist

At first, the shift to industrial metal seemed like an abrupt change, but this quickly turned into a nice balance of electronics with instruments, and the skill of Joe Letz as a drummer upped the band’s rhythm game. He was a fixture with Andy of live Combichrist for many years, and Eric 13 came in with playing that shifts a bit from show to show and is very interactive with the audience to keep the band unique. He’s not the most predictable guitarist and plays with nice classic influences, and Andy seems to love mixing industrial music with rock tradition for industrial metal and having the shows surprise people. With the importance of some great industrial metal bands like Ministry and the prominence of black metal in Norway, it’s great to see electronic and Norwegian themes built into that newer format.

Classic songs like Blut Royale always get heavy attention at performances, and they count as unique recreations in the live format. This frees up the band to play richer shows than a lot of industrial musicians get to perform, because the creative use of electronic production can become limiting for many musicians with their live show. Combichrist is able to recreate their most classic electronic songs into brutal but fun and still danceable chaotic attacks. Their shift to this format actually got me going to more metal shows, and the themes and musicianship in important dark styles of metal create a wonderful dialogue with industrial music. It also leaves the audiences interesting and harder to predict. Combichrist fans are very nice, and I know what to expect with them, but it is hard to know when a show will have more people who want to dance, or more who want to mosh, or more who want to stand focused on every moment of the band.

Audience interaction is a big part of gothic music. It’s more of a community than a place for bands to play to spectators, and this makes it a much more legitimate form of art and a serious home for underground and subversive creativity. Rock managed to implode itself by being too big and too commercial with the best bands ending up in chaos like the last days of The Beatles. Then record companies managed to control everything into highly produced packaging, and it has overall led to recycled and predictable sounds that are very commercially managed. Gothic and industrial have subverted this and remain strange and underground with serious experiments that defy expectations, with Combichrist being a stalwart of that.


Elements of surrealist and dada art work their way into the industrial genre as does psychedelia and abject themes. These are important influences, because art does best when it deals with different perceptions and things left outside of the norm or otherwise buried. This can provide different perspectives that are very unique, and it can also point to important social elements such as why society chooses to ignore or push aside some ideas. Particularly in the mechanistic workings of industrial music, this can shine a light on how certain social configurations are constructed and can also help to break them apart. Surrealism cuts underneath normality by showing us how dreams and the unconscious shape ourselves and our surroundings. As an outgrowth of Freudian thinking and the linguistic versions of that, surrealism allows for industrial music’s focus on sexual themes in songs to make a lot of sense. It explains how they are able to do something artistically important while also making for fun clubbing. 

Combichrist songs focus on why people think the way they do about many of the most controversial things such as sex, guns, war, and power. While many people shy away from deep controversial topics, Andy probes them and makes them into art that is very much alive. Now that he lives in America, the importance of the rock tradition in dealing with those themes is even more important, and songs about things that sound offensive are more often meant to be ironic or to force people to think differently or simply open them up to fun clubbing by embracing absurdity.

with Joe Letz of Combichrist

Seeing Abbey and Zmarr and eventually Joey leave the band was unfortunate, but the evolving lineup remains amazing, and they both went on to important things in industrial with Abbey founding Abbey Death Band along with Valerie Gentile Abbey, and Zmarr played completely epic shows with PIG for The Gospel tour, which I still think is Raymond Watts’ best album and one of the most important works in industrial music. Joey now plays drums for Daniel Graves in the very important Aesthetic Perfection. Having all of those bands hold ties to Combichrist makes industrial music even more fun as a shared art scene for subversive and intelligent ideas, and the reality is that the band is always really Andy.

He writes the albums by himself. So every bit of every song is his creation, but he assembles evolving lineups of excellent musicians to put their hearts into the band and create beautiful live versions of those songs and completely epic shows. Andy is always the core of the band, and he is able to bring musicians through his band with the vision remaining completely intact. The result is that shows are a bit unpredictable and leave some excitement over the sound of each tour. There is something deeply industrial about being able to play the same songs so many ways. The ideas remain, but the building of sounds mechanistically from elements transmutes from show to show, and the One Fire Tour is a stunning current example of exactly that.


A lot of his songs focus on love over superficiality and rebellion against corruption. My Life My Rules from This is Where Death Begins brings this out nicely. The song is about owning oneself and being responsible for and in control of the short time of being alive. It is also heavily opposed to oppression and facades. Skullcrusher focuses on corruption and social collapse with the refrain, “You son of a bitch, you must be kidding, serving this pile of crap. I’m not forgiving you. Goddamit, you’re only holding me back.” Don’t Care How You Feel About It sounds like classic Combichrist and has Andy talking over the song with commentary, while Homeward finds him singing with Ariel Levitan. This reminds me of the early MXMS song, The Run, with it’s refrain of, “I’m just a girl, and I want to go home.” Andy sings about going homeward as a result of surrounding things collapsing, but collapse can be constructive, especially with the many breakdowns heard in industrial songs.

Existentialism and deconstruction as European intellectual movements pervade industrial music, filtered through the large varieties of art and ideas that those perspectives have infiltrated. In the case of Combichrist, the idea of owning one’s existence is always central, and it’s often achieved through a breakdown of superficiality and artifice. These fundamental ideas of a focus on existence and its limits and the breaking of constructed artifices are massive cultural themes throughout the arts, and Andy’s work has managed to create some of the compelled perspectives on these things. While I do think IAMX has some of the most probing examinations of existence, they can’t touch Combichrist at examining the frequent theme of breakage that is so important to industrial music, and where Chris Corner finds intelligent doubt and confusion as his songs examine human existence, Andy finds resolution and the need to be fiery about making our own meaning. Instead of wandering around aimlessly and reveling in being lost, Combichrist would have us make ourselves into something profound and forceful and live instead of moping. Both bands are artsy, but Combichrist stands out as a fierce statement about responding to so many existential questions by living, and the very serious embrace of life in many ways sets the project apart from the rest of the gothic scene which tends to be fun and experimental but often also veering on being depressed and withdrawn. 

Of the old era, Today We Are All Demons stands out for me as my longtime favorite. Industrial classics like All Pain Is Gone take aggrotech to an aggressive level that manages to be beautiful and psychological at the same time. Andy’s best songs have a combination of aggression and independence and also an elegiac sense of beauty. He will complain about corruption and having to fight it but also encourage seeking out good things and supporting the most positive parts of the world, other people, and oneself. It seems a bit like being forged by fire into a new freedom that overcomes negativity, and the solution to problems is always to take control and to live well with other people.

He has one of the best aggressive voices in music, because his vocals have an electric sounding edge to them that blends incredibly well with industrial production, and he is able to transition fluidly between powerful screams and real singing. This fits the band’s overall message of seeking beauty and love while being aggressive and not accepting oppression or falsity. Many of the songs are breakdowns of society, technology, corruption, and facades. Some of those facades are common negative tendencies in people, and some are socially produced problems, like oppressive and corrupt governments and industries.

With the song All Pain Is Gone, there is clear adversity in the lyrics which is then overcome by a new awareness, lack of pain, and refusal to accept oppression. Sent to Destroy is a masterwork with one of the most astounding cacophonies of electronic beats that industrial music has created. It’s a play on the apocalyptic end of the world, but like most of the best Combichrist songs it runs in two different directions. The song can be read as an absurd complaint about the apocalyptic society that it is describing, suggesting the need to replace a decrepit society that is leading itself to nuclear war rather than merely being about a nuclear apocalypse. The ironic calm keyboard at the end of the song serves to emphasize this.

The song Scarred reaches beauty with its chant of, “The rain will wash me away. All structures collapse. Nothing covers my grave. Only destruction remains.” Destruction is twisted into cleansing and positivity found in the transience of the world, and the album subverts destructiveness into being so pointless that nothing will be left. This is made clear on The Kill V2 as the next song on the album. It then transitions into mental liberation with Get Out of My Head, where the real challenge is to overcome destructiveness by fighting corruption and oppression within oneself to become positive with other people. Today We Are All Demons then expresses damage to the soul from superficial nonsense, showing a need to improve ourselves as an elegy for broken humanity, a call for fighting to fix it and to improve oneself through the struggle.

Combichrist is very foundational for industrial music. Like Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, VNV Nation, KMFDM, Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and a small number of foundational threads of music, Andy has shaped industrial sounds, themes, and techniques to a considerable degree. His songs have been clubs hits for the industrial scene for 15 years, and the early versions of this were dance heavy electronic compositions with remarkable aggression. Now the sound has shifted towards industrial metal for some years with a variety of excellent musicians coming through. A lot of this seems driven by building a connection between electro-industrial music and rock traditions, and the experiment is a thrill.

One Fire

2019 brings a new album and a new U.S. and world tour from Combichrist. The three new released songs from One Fire are epic tracks and present some of Andy’s best work. Joe Letz is out of the band for now and performing with Aesthetic Perfection, but that change to the live lineup doesn’t change how the album was made. Live Combichrist now has excellent dual drummers with Dane White and Will Spod, but for the album Andy’s process has been the same since the beginning. He works by himself writing the songs, and where he used to use his own electronics on the early albums, now he sends his ideas to session musicians. So the later industrial metal albums are still composed like the earlier ones but with live instruments played in the studio to make it easier to translate the songs for the live band.

Hate Like Me is a very direct song about being angry about obstacles and maintaining a fire. It describes people declining and giving up on fighting and having dreams. Andy yells for us to learn to hate what stands in our way and to fight to be the best instead of watching ourselves fall apart. Guns at Last Dawn is about standing up for our rights as a group. As liberty is encroached upon, the song says we won’t lie down or surrender and that freedom is worth the last fight. Understand is a more personal song about our own perspectives and barriers from within. The songs show an album with a challenging vision and a combination of sonic fury and beauty that is formidable even for Andy. As Understand in particular shows though, the songs have great depth.

The live tour for One Fire is amazing and has Combichrist in their best form. I missed Joe Letz who is now in Aesthetic Perfection, but the two new drummers sound terrific, and Eric 13 was on fire with Andy for a great show at the Marquis Theater in Denver. Andy experimented with two drummers before by having Nick Rossi play with Joey sometimes, but it was an on and off thing. Now, both drummers rehearsed to play together as the normal live version of the band, and it sounds tight and powerful with raw driving drumming that sounds like an epic industrial creation. Eric and Andy brought me backstage to photograph the band and then invited me to photograph the whole show, and it was a great experience.

This will become a longer article after the whole album is released, and I plan to also go back and examine the great Making Monsters before long, but for now let me conclude by making the case for Combichrist as the best industrial band since Nine Inch Nails. This project started in the very early 21st century when there were questions about whether the scene was reaching exhaustion. Nine Inch Nails remained an important classic act, and there was still a proliferation of small bands making good experimental work, but Marilyn Manson had been wounded by what were proven to be unfair attacks, and the gothic scene had dwindled quite a bit. Industrial music needed to be revived at the start of the millennium, and Andy did it.

The sounds from the early electronic albums are some of the most sophisticated electronic sounds ever created. They are also some of the most varied and subtle, among the most danceable, and manage a fiery aggression that maintains irony, humor, and friendliness in a way no one else has come close to managing. The industrial scene got a new life when Everybody Hates You came out, and industrial was able to claim a great club status as an experimental, underground, fun, and safe scene with ferocious power and commentary on many of the most important facets of ourselves. Since then, Combichrist has grown into a compelling and powerful live band with industrial metal albums that are as great as the best releases from Ministry and songwriting that maintains the same heart and ideas as the way the band started.

Originally published 1/7/19; updated 5/17/19

MXMS – music review

MXMS – music review

MXMS is an underground two person band that is one of the best artistic expressions in music. Dark, haunting, depressed, and gothic, they call their sound funeral pop. It stands out as deeply poetic and undefinable, with Ariel’s low and smoothly ravishing voice stretching over Jeremy Dawson’s keys played usually in the style of dark cabaret piano. Their songs have been released as singles and short EPs, and this has contributed to being a small band, but it has given them great creative freedom and a wider range of expression than albums allow. Each song is a unique stand alone production with diverse elements that always remain deeply haunting in nature, and each song packs an individual punch that songs from an album often lack. Collectively, they have released enough songs to have an album length portrait of their music, but by releasing songs individually they stand as a bold underground expression of singular works of art. Each song is unique and powerful like a painting and has little relation to commercial music in favor of something much more important.

Ariel Levitan of MXMS
Ariel Levitan with MXMS at 3 Kings in Denver, 12/9/18

Ariel’s voice is deeply moving and has an internalized sense to it. The depressive sounds she is able to express are beautiful in a way that is haunting and introspective. She sounds like the expression of a longing soul from an underworld seeking light, like the story of Persephone and Demeter, her voice emerging from a land of barren seas beneath what everyone else sees. The perception of subtle sounds in the band’s dark repertoire amplifies this. They don’t veer off of dark low fi sounds ever, and MXMS songs are slower than a lot of gothic bands, but they are entrancing within a different range of perception, seeming like a warm glow from a hidden place in a different dimension. Ariel seems to come from somewhere out of the dark to show us beautiful subterranean shadows we can’t see anywhere else.

Ariel Levitan with MXMS

She also has an unusual amount of flow in her delivery, something that is normally more typical of hiphop, and I discovered we are both fans of K.Flay, a hiphop artist working with darker styles and rock overlap. That flow makes Ariel sound ravishing on lines like, “The blood’s on the floor, head’s on the door,” from The Run, for making the associational lyrics mesh against each other into a single thought which quickly becomes profound as the song transitions into, “I swear I saw god in a 7-11. If my head’s in the oven then we’re getting to heaven. He gave me a shot of the holy ghost, and suddenly I’m fine,” only to then be crucified on a cellphone tower in an auto accident with the song’s powerful depressive refrain of, “And I love being alone, playing with a gun. The blood’s on the floor, head’s on the door.” She shows us beauty and transcendence amidst complete breakage.

The keyboards are equally unique. Loads of goth, industrial, and synthpop bands make central use of keyboard sounds, but few are able to make them so completely central and expressive to their sounds. Jeremy also plays in Shiny Toy Guns, and his style of playing for MXMS is usually found in piano, but other songs take more 80s sounds, and some even have traces of hiphop. He has a diverse range, but quiet and dramatic piano based playing is the axis for most of their compositions. He is the proverbial shadow of the band’s name, which stands for me and my shadow, and his haunting piano sounds fit the imagery well. MXMS has a profoundly consistent way of staying within the shadows and finding moving things to say about them without ever becoming repetitive, because every song is deeply poetic and individual, adding to the band’s enigmatic appeal as a genuine art project.

Funeral Pop

Something in the Way is one of the best covers I’ve heard, and it is a better version than the original. Paring the song down to a keyboard with drum track and a haunting voice allows the silence that Cobain put into the composition to pervade much more. He was haunted by depression and anxiety and had a deeply dystopian view of the world that has always struck me as being gothic on the inside, and Killing Joke was a major influence on Nirvana to reinforce that sense. MXMS brings this out with less traditional rock instrumentation and a slower tempo. The song becomes mellow and expansive, internalized into what seems like a psychedelic painting of sadness. It seems that Ariel has managed to somehow resurrect Cobain’s haunted soul and is able to say what he meant more clearly than he did himself. Her enigmatic delivery gives the song an airy openness that the original version needed, and it makes it much more a depiction of nothingness.

Ariel with MXMS
Ariel with MXMS

Anna stands out as a rhythmic beautiful expression of closeness, desire, and facades. The lyrics are wonderfully associational as are MXMS’ best songs, with a narrative that is sparse and impressionistic. The opening line of, “Choke my throat with the blood of the vine. Cursed black hearse, wanna go for a ride?,” sets up an impressionistic story of an encounter, and the song proceeds to tell the story of modelesque and strange Anna. The refrain, “Anna’s got a gun, and it’s pointed at me,” talks about female power but with the burden of superficiality shaped by desire. “I like the young girls, super thin. Look at her hipbones, porcelain. I like the good girls, who cry every day,” points to love being deflated into desire for the image of a person rather than the totality, while the line, “I only love you when you’re falling apart,” talks about exploitation but also a powerfully dark aesthetic of beauty being found in a total mess, much like Jim Jarmusch found striking beauty in a decaying world with Only Lovers Left Alive. The cover art for the single looks like an inversion of Ariel into Anna, as though it’s an alter ego or a shadow of herself, playing with her own image to subvert it. One has the impression that Anna is a commercial image of beauty metaphorically pressuring Ariel into less subversive artistry, but alas, it isn’t to be.

The song Rx has my favorite and most memorable line of, “I’m just a girl, and I want to go home,” which I still remember her singing next to a video screen with Jeremy in a dark cloak when they opened for Combichrist as a brand new project.  It’s a beautiful depiction of damaged innocence and emotional depth that makes for far more serious statements than most bands can deliver. From that early era, Omg also stands out for being one of the saddest and most haunting songs about separation anyone has ever written, with its, “I stand here naked, looking up and down, while your ghost is touching me. You made my body feel like heroin. Until you wake, I’ll sleep,” lines. It seems as though we are touching someone’s soul and seeing the face of human desire rather than just listening to fun or even experimental sounds.

Jeremy Dawson with MXMS
Jeremy Dawson with MXMS

The new song Gravedigger is an example of some of the wider sounds they have developed from hip hop and EDM influences. There are bass drops that sound like old style underground early dubstep. It also seems like the logical and more ominous successor to Anna in many respects, with a blending of horror and beauty into lines like, “Everybody wants pretty girls they say, but nobody knows pretty girls make graves.” It was released as a Halloween single and is the best Halloween song I’ve heard in ages, though it is also much deeper and reflective like most of their songs, with Ariel subverting most of what she sings about even while the song is extremely fun. She raps about being a dangerous girl who etches gravestones while she is also just a cute goth girl singing with obvious irony.

As a live band, they are even more powerful, as was on beautiful display in December of last year when they opened for Psyclon Nine at 3 Kings in Denver. The low fi nature of the music makes it much more intimate than most any other band. Where even the best bands seem to have some amount of theatricality to communicate with their audience, MXMS is stripped bare. It seems more like they are sharing musical poetry that comes from somewhere deep within or some strange place not everyone sees. It allows them to be visionary in a purely musical sense without projecting anything but instead showing how basic and powerful what they have created really is on its own terms.

Ariel Levitan

It’s a very powerful experience and seems very much like music stripped down to its raw parts, its creative source without layers of production placed on top. They are both excellent performers, but in many respects, this is far more primal than other forms of music. It is similar to the way that poetry can strip down language to its most basic functions and show how it works by taking away as much as possible to leave only what is necessary, allowing one to see how meaning itself emerges and what music is made of by using the barest elements to study themes of the deepest, most personal and existential concern.

To distill this the most, MXMS is perhaps the most existential band around, and this reminds me of classic musical acts and gothic ones at the same time. On the side of classics, Leonard Cohen was deeply existential with dark lyrical songs of bitterness and hope guised in simplicity, and I hear echoes of him and Nick Cave translated into a dark sad gothic low fi realm. I’m a fan of this aesthetic. Low fi sounds have been pushed by good mainstream musicians advocating garage rock like Dan Auerbach with a hope of returning to rock roots, but their efforts have been undermined by the commercial stature of their projects. Low fi works best on smaller terms, and MXMS has mastered it. They also execute it in a way which is entirely original rather than a return to early rock sounds. This is underground art with deep purpose and pristine execution.


For February of 2019, MXMS have released a stunning new song, Paris, and it is one of their most haunting and moving songs. When I saw them play in March of 2018 at an art gallery, Ariel was wearing a Paris shirt, and I was excited about where that would lead as a long time scholar of French philosophy and cinema. The song is a story about love in Paris, but it’s also about love for Paris. An epic city of art, Paris is perhaps most strikingly photographed in Jean-Luc Godard’s great films of the 1960s. He has perhaps the best run in the history of cinema in that era, and his movies excel at showing nighttime Paris in dark beautiful facades of flickering light with haunting faces in works like Breathless, My Life to Live, and Alphaville

with Ariel

MXMS captures that beautiful haunting atmosphere of decaying art amidst a threatening world. Ariel’s lyrics are especially impressionistic and paint a portrait of a person who opens her up and also of a city itself in a beautiful way that is so natural it’s easy to envision the world is made of glimpses and not things, her gentle voice capturing the flow of images and feelings better than any other way of seeing a city. Godard’s films capture tragedy and impending doom. He saw threats to romance and poetry from accelerating capitalism and technology implementing dehumanized social control. The  funeral pop of MXMS captures similar feelings for me of the beautiful, dark, haunting, and sad cinematography of his futuristic film noir Alphaville, which I’ve always thought is his most poetic film and most beautifully photographed one.

Ariel with MXMS
Ariel Levitan with MXMS in Denver, Oriental Theater, 4/23/19

Poetry is at the forefront for MXMS, and Paris captures it most profoundly. Ariel sings, “Why is Paris so beautiful tonight? You said, not as beautiful as you,” and we feel the city becoming a part of her. She continues about her feelings, “And I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing here right now, and I don’t have any idea of who you are,” capturing a feeling of being out of place but also finding oneself by being so outside the norm. Then she croons, “Will you stay with me? Don’t leave me alone.”  It’s a beautiful and haunting look at a place and a time. Jeremy’s keys sound like beautiful glimpses of sound floating over the boulevards of the city with mellow echoes of an aching heartbeat and memory, and the percussion sounds kaleidoscopic as it gives strange echoes of what could be footsteps roaming a haunting place of beauty in all directions with no fixed place. It’s a masterful song, and it gives Ariel’s beautiful voice a  pure space to dwell in with her airy sighs. 

Funeral Pop 1 EP

On May 1st, MXMS released their very first EP, Funeral Pop, volume 1. It is an exciting event and for the first time brings some of their songs together into a larger work. It will be followed later in the year by a volume 2. The songs on the EP together express the band’s vision in beautiful shades. The opening song of Salvation Hurts is more of a rock song than any of their other tracks. It’s a beautiful and soaring song with new wave influences and 80’s style keyboards mixed with Jeremy playing guitar. The sound is altogether beautiful, and Ariel’s voice sounds like it is reaching to heaven in line with the idea of the song. It has some of the best lyrics MXMS have written. The song talks about surviving, being saved, and finding salvation, maybe in the religious transcendent sense, though it could also be interpreted more mundanely. From bad experiences such as drugs, we are told the story of surviving and living itself bringing suffering but being worth it. Hearing her reach truly soaring vocals is beautiful, and it is one of my favorite vocal turns of any song. She is a great gothic vocalist with a lot in common with Peter Murphy and Jyrki 69, bringing deep airy vocals against occasionally jarring highs with jagged edges and soft blows that seem like bits of light hovering above darker waters.

Ariel Levitan with MXMS

Gravedigger now finally gets a proper home as the second track. With it’s hip hop styling and bass sounds that also show a bit of EDM influence from the heavy varying bass drops of dubstep, Ariel raps out a gothic tune where she sounds bad but is really cute. Paris also finds a home here as the third track, and once again a different side of the band emerges with that beautiful hazy song. The recent After Night is then the fourth track with it’s haunting reflections. The new song Timebomb debuts on the EP, with more hip hop influence turned into dark electronica with irony, and the new song The Enemy closes the EP. All of these songs have been performed live, and The Enemy is beautifully dark and seems like a natural progression into an original slow and moody song from the band’s cover of Something in the Way by Nirvana. I find this to be a beautiful expression of a very different path for music. It’s a sustained work of austerity and a deeply gothic vision of sad beauty and life’s gentle dance of finitude. None of us are here forever. Gothic culture has created artistic ways of recognizing this as a central human truth, but MXMS have achieved a way of examining that without any artifice at all. While their slow pace on many songs will likely lose some people who want party music, those who see genuine art in the best gothic offerings are likely to find other works look cheap or false by compare. I don’t know what the commercial potential for that heavy dose of sincerity is, but as a way of achieving beauty, it stands alongside works of renaissance art that graciously refuse to accept normal life as a complete circumstance or real enclosure. We all die, and there is always more to see than our eyes show us at any given time, and MXMS songs are often calm to offer an openness to that sense of mystery. 

with Ariel Levitan

Performing again in Denver, this time at Oriental Theater with The 69 Eyes, Ariel and Jeremy were moving, beautiful, and epic. They did have to deal with a very large stage that is much bigger than their normal venue, and it taxed their lighting equipment, but the show was haunting and beautiful. Ariel seemed to be on fire and was relatively direct for how she sings her songs. The new EP was available on disc with them, and they performed all six songs from it along with Something in the Way, which fit well against them for its eerie and haunting sense of mystery. The band embraces quiet and silence like no other musical project, and I admire this philosophically. Martin Heidegger’s examinations of poetry make a profound case for silence itself being the dwelling place of language, the place from which meaning can emerge. Overflowing sound is too imposing to say very much. Painting silence with sound so that each note and lyric can emerge as a bold statement is far more powerful. Ronan Harris sometimes plays with this in VNV Nation, and he is indeed a poetic artist as is MXMS. I enjoyed seeing Riverside Cemetery with Ariel and Jeremy before the show. It was a beautiful and calm place, and they showed great respect for it. We sat next to a beautiful sculpture of Christ, and the place captured a sense of the silent as beauty very well. 

Originally published 1/1/19; updated 2/22/19 & 5/15/19

The 69 Eyes – music review

The 69 Eyes – music review

The 69 Eyes are one the best goth bands to ever grace music. They are the only great goth rock band besides the classics of Bauhaus, The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. That is a large role to fill and an amazing accomplishment. Coming from Finland, the band has managed to be very unique for being in such an isolated northern part of the world compared to the concentration of gothic rock more towards England. This has likely been a part of how they manage to stay so high quality with such unique inspiration, existing in their own icy secluded world of beautiful strangeness.

The gothic themes are thick on their songs, but what is really great about The 69 Eyes is that they actually get the entire trajectory of goth rock. Unlike so many people in clubs who take themselves far too seriously, The 69 Eyes see rock tradition in what they do, and they express irony and humor in their songwriting. The songs are about death, excess, darkness, and fatal romance, but they are more aware than the vast majority of bands that all of that is proper rock and roll. It’s rock music brought back to its subversive and pessimistic roots of wanting to live in the dark in clubs with beer and likeminded people without much desire to make mainstream society happy, and that is true rock and roll.

Jyrki with The 69 Eyes
Jyrki with The 69 Eyes in Denver, Oriental Theater, 4/23/19

In many respects, that is the actual point of having a gothic art scene in the first place. The artistic intent behind the better people involved has been to offer intelligent avenues for uniqueness and weirdness in a way that is safe, silly, and in tune with musical traditions of exploring culture. The love of rock itself comes first with the band, and they master gothic trappings to show that while less successful acts have tended towards making themselves take subculture too seriously as its own end or a commercial enterprise, there is real art, beauty, and even vital musical tradition at stake in what gothic rock can express.

The development of goth rock is a fascinating story. It grew out of the pessimism and anarchy of punk but crossed that with a dark romanticism and love of being underground and different. While punk grew out of anger over the collapse of idealism in classic rock with its hopes for peace, love, and freedom, goth rock decided that life is fatalistic anyway. So artists might as well enjoy living underground rather than hoping to fix much of anything or being angry enough to break things the way the punks wanted. Bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, and Siousxie and the Banshees embarked on serious creative sonic experiments that mixed the core of rock with dark romantic guitar riffs and atmospheric simplicity into a new sound focused on dark aesthetics and an embrace of oddness.

Jyrki with The 69 Eyes

Siouxsie used extremely weird vocal techniques to mix beautiful singing with intentional disruption while Budgie brought simplicity to drumming but with very odd masterful rhythms. It captured the beautiful simple but profound catchiness of The Beatles and added post punk skepticism, darkness, and weirdness, and they have always maintained that few other bands have ever understood anything gothic. The Cure brought melodic guitar with dark psychedelia on top of the basics of punk and a continual reverie on tragic romance. Bauhaus filled things out with pseudo mystical nocturnal sounds layered over punk with disruptive sounds and gentle harmonies sometimes seeming on the edge of madness but allowing music to break through to a new and weird place that is too original to be called a trend. All three bands are quite literally works of genius. To give even more emphasis to the importance of goth rock, Peter Murphy and Siouxsie Sioux are two of the best vocalists ever to work in rock.

With The 69 Eyes, we see the only successful attempt to fully create goth rock afterwards. There are good minor bands around, but the sound is very hard to create properly. Besides the basics of dark themes and nocturnal sounds of dark against light that make almost every gothic project, the classics in the movement have had profound inspiration and execution along with beautiful experimentation that really can’t be copied. The Cure playing live is indescribably beautiful for Robert Smith’s guitar melodies and flights off into dark psychedelia that make The Grateful Dead seem conservative. Gothic really did break new artistic territory in its best days, and the challenge of true rock and roll doing this is a hard one, because rock instrumentation is basic compared to industrial music and much harder to take to an effectively gothic place without simply being a pastiche as often happened with later attempts.

Jyrki with The 69 Eyes

Jyrki 69, Bazie, Timo-Timo, Archzie, and Jussi 69 have managed to create a true goth rock path that is the equal of the best the genre has managed to create. Each song is a nocturnal canvas with surprising sounds and haunting creations that stay tongue in cheek enough to emphasize that rock and roll is the point of the entire exercise. What I find important here is that if we do think the classic styles of goth rock are so radically important, then there is a need to link this to the larger rock tradition. The 69 Eyes do exactly that by paring things down to the basics with overwhelming atmosphere, beautiful playing, and focused composition. Each song is its own story of dark rock. 

For my money, their most important album is the great Paris Kills, which should be counted as one of the most important rock albums ever made. It’s among the most nocturnal recordings anyone will ever hear. Dripping with dark streets, shadows, haunted atmosphere, and glistening guitar riffs with velvety dark vocals, it’s a perfect album. Crashing High opens the album with an instantly fatalistic view of romance, a frequent idea in their songs. The refrain of, “So why, you wanna fall in love. Crashing high, from high above,” is pessimistic but not depressing. It encourages fun and connection without expectations of a fairy tale. Realism to The 69 Eyes is fatalistic fun while we are alive and not a search for perfection in love or anything else. Dance D‘Amour follows it with the idea of simply dancing and connecting all night as a nocturnal way to get away from yourself. Betty Blue is a love song about running away, but it’s about the meaninglessness of life causing us to seek to fall into each other for enjoyment and meaning. It’s not fake idealized love, but connecting in the dark with passion. Grey slows things down and is about darkness from a personal perspective and not wanting to lose someone. Jryki sings for her to stay and asks the night not to fall on a couple, with darkness turning to blue. “Please stay. Don’t let it burn away. You stay. Let it turn us grey,” is about staying with someone forever, but it’s a gothic statement, because forever means into night and even death eventually. What’s great is that they are able to take the trope of so many cheap love songs and twist it to gothic fatalism without all the frills.

with Bazie from The 69 Eyes
with Bazie from The 69 Eyes

The album slows down a bit with Radical and seems to be heading into twilight with a beautiful gothic ballad that is too weird and dark to be a sappy song. It stays true to gothic vision by finding beauty in death and proposes not wanting to be young forever, but wanting to change and eventually be past life. Don’t Turn Your Back on Fear is about not being afraid to do things. Never turning your back on fear means facing excitement and being bold enough to live, and it’s maybe the most haunting song on the album, encouraging us to go and live in the night. Stigmata sounds wet all over in the night time. Forever More is about being close enough to feel a heartbeat, but that has stirring intonations of life, love, and death all at once. It is a beautiful and perfect metaphor. Still Waters Run Deep is a sad slow song with sweeping sounds of echoing vocals about intimacy. In the calm part of a relationship, there is room for recognizing depth. Dawn’s Highway is about the path to the light basically being death, abandoning the night to face the destructive harshness of light. It makes us yearn for beautiful darkness. You’re Lost Little Girl is the album’s most haunting song. Being lost is left open and metaphorical here. It could be anything that leaves a person lost and searching, and that makes it a gothic song to the core, because it’s an existential depiction of not knowing exactly who or where we are. 

With that remarkable classic being properly given its place in the live performances of the current tour, the new album Universal Monsters is solidly on form and a fiery return for the band. It’s a bit more upbeat and aggressive, and it also has some nice bluesy sounds. I’m very enamored with different ways that the blues are present in dark and heavy music of late. The Gospel by PIG is a great example, but MXMS also use deep dark soulful blues influences, and Zakk Wylde with Black Label Society is playing more blues than people realize in his metal songs about sin and redemption. I have little doubt that the dark and sometimes evil potential of the blues being at the grounding of rock music has something to do with how a band like The 69 Eyes can capture rock so perfectly through a genre that has sometimes unfairly been written off as just a subculture. Rock and roll was always supposed to be dark to some extent as even great classic rock bands like The Rolling Stones have shown on songs like Sympathy for the Devil. The 69 Eyes seem to be taking their very well perfected dark tendencies and joining them with a bit more metal and blues than normal on the new album, and it’s a great move, because it gives them hooks into a very creative current scene and provides an important foundation for the goth sounds they create so expertly.


Lady Darkness is a lovely song that starts off with a gentle groovy drumbeat from Jussi, and then turns into a smoothly rolling song with some of Jyrki’s best velvety vocals. It’s metaphorically caught in between going home with a girl and being taken by the night, but the beauty is unmistakably nocturnal. Shallow Graves is a nice song about the fleeting nature of life. For anyone who thinks that gothic songs are superficial, please notice that life is very transient and impermanent. So building our own graves for ourselves by focusing on tedium is probably less helpful than being nihilistic enough to accept that we all die eventually so that we might as well live in the meantime. Jerusalem is an underrated and beautiful song that has to be one of the band’s oddest creations. It’s about the mythical city and really does treat it as a myth, as in a place of dreams rather than a tangible location. By combining past and present descriptions, time literally does seem to disappear on the song. The later Peter Murphy albums with semi mystical tendencies are the best corollaries I can find. The album closes with the great Rock & Roll Junkie which has simple lyrics but beautiful bluesy guitar. It’s perfect to play live, and it sums up the importance of rock and roll for the Helsinki vampires.

On tour, they are a great live band. Touring with MXMS is especially exciting, because they are maybe the most nocturnal band around, making this the most gothic tour of the year. Gothic is supposed to be dark, friendly, and weird, and The 69 Eyes and MXMS both fit that vision to the core. They are very willing to experiment but always in ways that make sense within larger rock aesthetics. Both bands are an exciting underground mix of tradition meeting very dark and esoteric tendencies, and both bands favor beautifully airy sounds. It happens on Bazie’s guitar playing offering pauses and tempos that allow for his sounds to be absorbed and felt instead of continually shredding, opening up some true mystery. With MXMS Ariel’s vocals are beautifully airy and capture so much subtle perfection that her range and available styles are deceptive. When she croons into Salvation Hurts, the velvety vocals give way to a soaring and beautiful attack. Jyrki is a master though of velvety sounds, and he makes them seem like a complete vocal canvas with all the variations he finds on that style.

Jyrki with The 69 Eyes

The instrumental quality of the band is very high. Much like The Cure, everyone is very seasoned at playing together and making beautiful and subtle sounds with perfect rhythm. Bazie’s guitar stays more focused on the songs than Robert Smith’s heavenly melodic tangents, but it has a powerful and focused tone that is very moving and a way of carrying the listener into dark airy gothic places with more mystery than any other guitar. He is focused on traditional rock with dark intonation and lovely harmony. He is also very fun to drink with. Jussie is an anarchic drummer for such a focused band with nice tempo adjustments to build emphasis at different parts of the show, and Jyrki is simply a great singer and performer. There is too large a cliche of guys not having to be able to sing in rock bands, and then there are great exceptions to that like the enormous vocal talent of Peter Murphy. Jyrki is a great rock vocalist with a velvety delivery of classic rock turned into deep expressions of nocturnal melody.

If there are any true rock vampires around, it would be either Peter Murphy or Jyrki 69. Peter Murphy is nearly mystical in his reverie for gothic oddness and weird perceptions, but Jryki is a nocturnal vampire of sound. He catches soft and subtle sounds and sighs in his vocals, and is possibly the vocalist who is the most similar to the style that Ariel uses in her beautiful airy sounds with MXMS, making it a remarkably interesting turn of events that they are touring together. The friendliness of the band is also unmistakable. There is no rockstar ego at all with The 69 Eyes. They simply love what they do, and they are a joy to connect with. Bazie was one of the nicest people to be in a bar with after the Denver show. He was relaxed and cool and just loves rock and roll. The band deserves a huge following and a lot of appreciation for what they have done with genuine goth rock songs and with showing that this is a rock and roll enterprise to the core, and a very dark one.

The 69 Eyes