Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lazarus, Finally.

On my way back from jury duty, I bought comics. I bought the new issues of Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman, Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye and Kieron Gillen's and Jamie McKelvie's Young Avengers.

These are all critically acclaimed comics, though Hawkeye more than the others, but I also bought one more: Greg Rucka and Michael Lark's Lazarus.

My friends on Twitter who also like comics are new to comics and are committed to Hawkeye and Young Avengers in a way that gives me hope. Both series are anchored by creative teams that are absolutely essential to the premise. Without Matt Fraction writing or David Aja drawing most of Hawkeye, I'd be out. Not interested. Ditto for Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie on Young Avengers. When they leave, I'm out the door too.

Gillen's hinted that his end is in sight, and Aja's talking on Twitter about how he'd like to do something creator owned with Matt Fraction after Hawkeye wraps up.

Though, if Aja leaves and Fraction stays on then I can be persuaded to stick around, if Steven Wacker can keep finding new, excellent talent to pencil the comic. Mr. Wacker being an editor that keeps emotive and imaginative pencillers up his sleeve, that's a meaningful consideration. Hawkeye and Young Avengers are proudly superhero comics and that's what powers them. There's conflict and loss and fear without the appalling "grittiness" that invades a post-Brian Azzarello comics industry.

And that's not me taking a swipe at Azzarello. His Wonder Woman is a great comic. It's strange, and a friend of mine argues it has terribly little to do with Wonder Woman and I still am not on board with the Amazons being praying mantis style murderers, but it's Wonder Woman being written by an A-list writer that isn't being pushed into crossover hell. I'll take it.

That this is the best of all possible worlds in DC brings me to Lazarus.

The first image of Lazarus is a pistol being discharged and the second image is the bullet impacting a woman. The first double page spread is of said woman lying on the ground, bleeding out at least two quarts of blood.

Lazarus is not all-ages.

I talked to a different, dear friend, who I have to plead with to get him to read Global Frequency, I told him that Lazarus (or at least its first issue) was about family and money and power. And I was right, but I wasn't being terribly precise. Sure, it's about family, money and power, but it's mostly about manipulation, control and violence.

Two people get shot in the head in Lazarus and I suspect a lot more will further down the road. Words are thrown around, but the people who live their true value tend to die real quick.

I tried to read other comics after i finished Lazarus. I could only stomach Young Avengers because of the baleful twist at the end, with entire swaths of Hawkeye's dog issue being lost on me. Hawkeye #11 is a masterpiece of virtuosity from Fraction and Aja. It didn't entirely land with me. I respect the hell out of it, since I can see the work that went into it, but that's as far as it goes. As for what happened in Wonder Woman, I straight up cannot remember. Lazarus leaves me with a chill beneath my skin, sinking into my bones.

I do not believe the Twitter crew would be so excited for Lazarus as they are for Hawkeye or Young Avengers. Lazarus is Greg Rucka writing for penciller Michael Lark with a point and letting his anger power his storytelling. Lark, the co-creator is methodical, precise and not flashy. What they concoct is vile and perhaps even corrosive. Put another way, I don't think Tumblr's feels are ready.

Lazarus is 100 Bullets one hundred years in the future. It's a hard sci-fi comic about a handful of families that control the world's wealth and spend most of the their time scheming over how to take other people's money while jealously guarding their own. This gives Lark a chance to pencil what he's known for: conflicted people with handguns and also lets him do design and world-build. What I see looks plausible, sadly, and even accurate.

In 2011, I read Rucka's novel Walking Dead as I rode along the Amalfi Coast. Whatever joy I was supposed to take from the gorgeous scenery was obliterated by Rucka's exacting, unswerving vision of the global web of sex slavery. I didn't enjoy the book, it wasn't meant to be enjoyed, per se, but it was pernicious and it was precise. Between now and then, Rucka published another novel called Alpha and was given an offer he couldn't refuse by Steven Wacker to write the Punisher, but neither of those works, despite also featuring men with guns, had the same kind of tone. (We pass over Stumptown, since there's too much humor.)

It is now 2013, and Lazarus exists. It feels like it should have come sooner, but it's still timely. Alpha was about geo-politics and terrorism scares. The Punisher was about a man keeping his word, however baleful that word may be. But Lazarus is about right the fuck now and what's coming for us down the pike.

Welcome back, Mr. Rucka. We missed you.

I said elsewhere that I wanted to write something that feels like how I feel when I listen to Cursed. I think Lazarus has a very, very good shot of being that piece of media. Below, find  one of my favorite tracks, called Magic Fingers. "When they say amen/they mean I hope you live forever/hand to mouth."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Make Do And Flatline

Rise Records curates an excellent four song split here.

You get two very distinct tastes, the first being Make Do And Mend's carefully collected emotion (think American Football and Hot Water Music) and The Flatliners close out the split wild, raucous and intrepid as punk ought to be. It's two songs by both bands, so this ought to last you a week. It'll be a great week, though.

"Don't" is another Make Do And Mend song. It's aggressive. It exists. But "Tell Me" is the scene stealer. "Tell Me" trembles. "Tell Me" has an ache like a tidal pull. It's one of my favorite songs of 2013 the instant I heard it. Think "Desert Lily," mixed with a smidge of "Coats," their song on Run For Cover's Mixed Signals compilation.

"Tell Me" centers around the chorus of "show me something life won't break / tell me something time can't take away." Yeah, it's dramatic, but like Make Do And Mend's best songs, it's earned with the lyrics "the end will draw you in, just like a moth against the wick" or "a hundred calling bells." "Tell Me" is earnest without being saccharine or using too much of cliche.
 The two Flatliners songs, by comparison are dexterous, fast and seem giddy on the possibility of what the band can do. There's a ridiculous (and ridiculously cool) guitar solo in "Caultron Girls" for the entire second minute of the song that sounds super Wilhelm Scream-y. Which is great. I love Wilhelm Scream. Said solo is one part fitting with the song, another part display of virtuosity, as if daring their friends to one up them.

The song appears to be about the young women who worked on the Manhattan Project without being told what they were working on, and if they spoke about what they did, rumor had it, they were killed. According to one participant, they watched numbers and moved dials, but weren't told why. This (and a cursory Google search) explains lyrics like "your life's a head game / when your job description is naivety."

"Daggers" first vocal is an almost doo-wop "ooooooooh." It's midtempo. Or, as close to mid-tempo as The Flats get. As mid-tempo as "This Respirator," I suppose. Hyperactive. Manic might be a better descriptor. Wait! It sounds like one of the good songs off of Dead To Me's African Elephants. Like someone fed The Flatliners horse tranquilizers and it didn't take.

As a fan of both bands, this represents some of their finest material to date and has me eagerly anticipating fuller portions, but hell, I'm an unwashed music nerd because these tiny portions sometimes contain incredible rewards. I hope they don't get reprinted in a year, by virtue of making the download or vinyl less valuable, but also, these songs being so good I view as the reward for paying attention.

And yes, they ought to be collected in an inevitable b-sides collection. Just in the future, okay? Not right now. Because right now, it's summer 2013 and while I don't have the coolest music or the most new music or the most groundbreaking music, it's new music from two very different bands who have hit their stride, but not yet their peak.

Alas, none of the full songs are on YouTube quite yet, but you can get a taste of the split below, which includes, luckily enough, 45 seconds of "Tell Me" and 45 seconds of "Caultron Girls."

Monday, June 10, 2013

Empty Three 2013

What the phrase "hardcore gamer" means to me, the morning of E3.

Starting today, most of the major players in making expensive, traditional videogame experiences will be speaking about their newest product. (Spoiler alert: Those newest products will likely be pretty fucking awesome.) That said, most of the developers I'm interested in are either so idiosyncratic or so large that they can either have their own conventions, or will announce things on their own time for their own reasons, that E3 seems like a colorful parade every year of which I have no very strong interest in anything being shown. I think "oh, that looks cool," for  three days straight. There are worse things.

If I'm honest, half the reason I'm here is to see Giant Bomb or Revision 3 talk about games. Those folks know what they're talking about and they seem pretty charming as they do it.

And that's probably a good thing, me passing out of the target demographic for "hardcore gamers." Depending on your definition, of course. I play Diablo 3 with my friends roughly every week and I've got the Humble Bundle open on a tab in Firefox as I write this, so I'm probably still a hardcore gamer, in the sense of James plays videogames and not just the ones that everyone else does, too. But my most recent console is a PS2 and it's staggeringly unlikely now that I'll get a new one for a couple years, ports being fairly easy to do and Steam and Humble Bundles being a fairly reliable line for excellent authored experiences. E3 isn't for me. It's for "hardcore gamers."

Here's the thing: I'm not sure I know any of those "hardcore gamers." I know persons who have been playing videogames since around the time they've been in lower school, but I don't know any "hardcore gamers."

Every so often, you'd hear about "the hardcore," and usually with that phrase precisely, talking about how they were underserved by their console or publisher of choice. I remember it coming out of the Xbox 360 guys most heavily, though that could be my approaching senility. Mostly, it was around the time of the Kinect or Netflix or any of the announcements that Microsoft was making that they might just maybe want their console to do other things in addition to the videogames it already played.

"Is Microsoft paying enough attention to the hardcore" and etc etc. One must understand, this is in a console cycle in which those gamers were delivered the Mass Effect trilogy, the Gears of War trilogy, tree Street Fighters, the Orange Box, six or maybe seven Call of Dutys, Dishonored, two Borderlands, two Batman games, Grand Theft Auto 4, Portal 2, Red Dead Redemption, Spec Ops: The Line, four Halo titles, a couple Rock Bands, two Forzas, two very different Far Crys, a three BioShocks, two Fallouts, Skyrim, two Saints' Rows, a new Deus Fucking Ex, ninety Assassin's Creed titles, L.A. Noire, and oh by the way, this was the first console cycle when DLC was integrated into the experience and you had a direct line into indie games like Braid, Bastion, Limbo, Plants Vs. Zombies, the Penny-Arcade stuff, Shadow Complex, Castle Crashers and anything else you can care to name.

Given all this, they felt underserved.

Politely, I want to ask Geoff Keighley or Adam Sessler, who are nobody's fools except of course their wives', who are these "hardcore gamers?" Because I look at that murderer's row of content and the only word I have is sufficit. It is enough! Does the hardcore have nothing else to do? Do they have literally no other interests in this life that they can pursue?

Do they not read? Are they uninterested in music or television? Is the only thing they do for leisure videogames and are they completely incapable of playing a game again?

E3 is for them and all of the businesses in their orbit. And the excitement, at least on Twitter, is palpable, (An aside: Watching Twitter during the conference feels like I'm waiting for the news to come in from the wire) but it's hard for me to get excited about a bunch of cutscences with carefully scripted gameplay sequences that'll end up on YouTube in a matter of hours. I shouldn't front, though: Those cutscenes and scripted gameplay sequences look fucking cool. The trouble of course, is that it always looks fucking cool. And that's no longer enough.

I think hardcore gamer means that I can wait to be all excited and bothered under the collar about videogames after I get back from work tonight. I think hardcore gamer means if you need me, I'll be playing Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2 with my friends and their fiancees. I think hardcore gamer means despite "hardcore gamers," I still love videogames.

It is enough.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

In The Aeroplane, Hold.

Michael Bay directing Christie Front Drive.

That's not, technically speaking, true, but the sentence is pithy enough for retweets, so it stays in. It's a little bit true, though. Or maybe it's just that Eric Richter is singing. Hold has a very wide scope. Post-rock is the obvious genre tag.

My first listen to Hold was strange. I was on a plane to Peru and got two hours sleep the night before. So, I drifted in and out of light sleep while Hold played. The effect was disorienting and felt like the experience was swathed in a dreamlike haze. I'd wake up in one song, fall asleep and arise in another. I couldn't (or chose not to) grasp anything of tracklisting or detail. I could only glimpse at the music, through the shroud of fatigue and chance. Authorial intent? I'd been in transit a solid 14 hours.

When I touched down in Lima, I knew I wanted to hear Hold again.
There's an element of colossal, ethereal melody to the endeavor. It's not just the three guitars, though that helps. My knowledge of shoegaze is limited, so I'm not sure what the right language is for massive moments. I believe Highness' members all understand soft/loud dynamics and Richter's voice has a range of melody that they can dig into. Try The Out_Circuit as a comparison. Both go heavy into the soft/loud dynamics but use both fairly naturally, due to the composers previous bands.

Hold is 2 a.m. music, I believe. My touchstone for that is Deafheaven or Envy, but likely yours are better than mine. Explosions In The Sky? Maybe? I believe the softer songs work better than the heavier ones. And heaviness is relative, here. It's not Hope Conspiracy, but Highness can get aggressive. (See "Stitched Together.") "Forking Roads," which immediately follows "Stitched Together" is a wonderful instrumental, one of my favorites since the first two and a half minutes of "A Bridge Too Far."

Holds runs for about 37 minutes over nine tracks. Of the nine, one's an 1:38 interlude and the final track is a :38 outro, with all but one of the songs being longer than a rough 4:30. I suspect that my first listen insulated me somewhat from the minor, but noticeable meandering in the compositions.

Listening to Hold like a sane human being would, front to back, without repeating tracks or sleep deprivation, gives a fairly clear "objective" assessment. It's an excellent  post-rock record, sewn together with Richter's voice, which sounds well suited for the task. His bandmates know how to hold down the rock end of things, and what you get is oriented in that direction, with Richter giving the players an excuse to try those melodies they've heard so much about in their previous bands but never quite got around to.

I don't know if you'll want to listen to Hold drifting in and out of sleep, but the experience was one that turned the familiar act of listening to a bunch of .mp3 files called a record into something exciting and unexpected. Whatever I heard, I heard and whatever I got out of it was my thoughts, without my thirty million filters collectively called the synthesis of my opinion.

In summation: I listened to Hold a couple different ways and I liked it both times. I suspect I'll still like it at the end of this year and perhaps the next. You can buy it here.

This is no longer representative of Highness, but the video I was going to use can't be found using Blogger, so, instead, here's something not quite as good, but still Highness' music.
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