Category Archives: art

Stalker (Сталкер) (1979)

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s enigmatic, brooding and grindingly slow SF film from 1979 is a favorite among artsy film connoisseurs and tastemakers, but the praise that has been heaped upon it needs to be taken with several grains of salt. Stalker is indeed a masterfully made film, and as far as I can tell, is a fairly explicit metaphor for the crushing despair of life under socialism. It is also an extended exploration of the nihilistic mindset that gave birth to one of the most repressive regimes in the 20th century. Criterion has just released a newly remastered blu-ray, so the world can now enjoy its bleak splendor as never before. That said, I don’t know that it will appeal to anyone beyond the hardcore cinephile set due to its grim aesthetics, cerebral artiness and glacial tempo.

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Since the storyline of Stalker is fairly straightforward on the surface, the allure of the film lies in attempting to peel back the layers of metaphor and symbolism. Tarkovsky’s work invites painstaking analysis because his film lives mostly in the realm of abstraction and semiotics. Considering that Stalker alone has inspired reams of film school exegeses and an entire book which deconstructs every minute detail, it has gained a reputation of being a puzzle of infinite depth.  Despite having a reputation which verges on a near mystical reverence, I think the film is quite possibly much more straightforward than prevailing opinion suggests.

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First and foremost, the film cannot be disassociated from socialist context in which it was created. This was, after all, a Mosfilm production, and by default, a work of art made by people living under a socialist dictatorship. Art was tightly controlled under the Soviets, so no filmmaker could make anything that was too explicitly critical of the regime. Making a ponderously slow film which buries its editorial under abstractions but still lends itself to a multiplicity of subjective interpretations was perhaps the only way to attempt to say anything that wasn’t boilerplate party propaganda.

Writer: While I am digging for the truth, so much happens to it that instead of discovering the truth I dig up a heap of, pardon… I’d better not name it.

The degree to which Tarkovsky’s aesthetic was a purely organic phenomenon in contrast to the extent that it was an adaptation to the confines of Party diktats are questions which must be considered. Stalker poses questions about the nature and role of art, and the fact that this film’s emotional spectrum ranges from sadness to suffering certainly tells us something about how art was affected by the psychological strictures imposed by socialist rule. I propose that the SF premise merely provided the necessary metaphorical pretext for the underlying editorial.  Since absolute fealty to socialist orthodoxy and groupthink was a way of life, telling the truth in a direct way was a counter-revolutionary act all by itself. In this film’s case, the ponderous pace and desolate tone was likely Tarkovsky’s way of pulling you deeply into the experience of life through Soviet eyes.

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Based loosely on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 book, Roadside Picnic, Stalker tells the story of three men who enter a quarantined area called the Zone. The Zone was declared off limits to the public as a result of some unknown incident that may have been paranormal in nature or simply an industrial accident. The big attraction of entering the Zone is the presumed existence of the Room; a place where all wishes can be granted. Two of the men, known only as the Writer and the Professor, enlist the services of the titular Stalker to navigate the Zone and lead them to the Room. Theoretically, this sounds like it could be a premise for a SF action thriller, but the film has more in common with existential theatre like Waiting for Godot or No Exit than anything in the conventional SF cinematic canon. Needless to say, the film is completely devoid of aliens, space travel, futuristic technology or any of the features we normally associate with cinema that calls itself science fiction.

The broad themes are spelled out very clearly in the first part of the film albeit in a somewhat oblique manner. As the film opens, we’re taken into the bedroom of the Stalker over the course of roughly nine dialogue-free minutes as he awakens next to his wife and disabled child. While dressing and preparing for the day, his distressed wife joins him in the kitchen and warns him that he risks returning to his old ways and being sent back to jail. Right away, Tarkovsky is revealing an important fact of life in the Soviet Union: the USSR was essentially an open air prison camp. Socialism had criminalized freedom itself, and the citizens had become complicit in their own enslavement.

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We discover in the subsequent scene that the Stalker is being enlisted to guide two other men into the Zone to find the Room. Since the Room was a place where one’s deepest wishes could be fulfilled, the Room could be viewed as a metaphor for hope, redemption, and the attainment of human dreams. In a word, freedom. No one can reach the Room without first passing through the heavily guarded perimeter of the Zone. The Zone is both an explicit metaphor for the Soviet state as well as the psychological confinement it engendered. The State had outlawed freedom, so the Stalker’s willingness to defy the State and lead others through the Zone is what makes him an outlaw. Naturally, his wife is fearful of caring for their disabled daughter without him, so she implores him not to go.

Stalker: The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

Tarkovsky seems to have a view of humanity that alternates between nihilism and idealism, but tilts heavily towards the former. In one of Stalker’s monologues, he describes the Zone as an entity whose malevolence is both triggered by the appearance of people and a reflection of man’s nature.

Stalker: The Zone is a very complicated system of traps, and they’re all deadly. I don’t know what’s going on here in the absence of people, but the moment someone shows up, everything comes into motion. Old traps disappear and new ones emerge. Safe spots become impassable. Now your path is easy, now it’s hopelessly involved. That’s the Zone. It may even seem capricious. But it is what we’ve made it with our condition. It happened that people had to stop halfway and go back. Some of them even died on the very threshold of the room. But everything that’s going on here depends not on the Zone, but on us!

The Stalker eventually meets the Writer and his glamorous girlfriend at the waterfront. Stalker rudely dismisses the woman as he and the Writer climb into a car to meet the Professor. Both the Writer and the Professor are quite possibly archetypes for the artistic and academic intelligentsia who have largely been conscribed to the role of being apologists for the State. The rudeness and disdain the Stalker exhibits towards his girlfriend is easily understood when examined in this light. After a contentious rendezvous with the Professor which symbolized internecine Party squabbling, the two men reveal their motivations for undertaking this treacherous journey. The Writer wishes to recover his lost inspiration while the Professor claims pure scientific curiosity. Since the arts had been completely subordinated to service of state propaganda, it makes perfect sense that the Writer would take such a dangerous risk in order to have a taste of genuine inspiration that has been so badly thwarted by demands for ideological conformity.  The Professor’s scientific curiosity is perhaps a jab at the misplaced faith that socialist society had placed in scientism.  A Room which grants your deepest wish is already an idea that lives beyond science.  Bringing a scientific mentality to such a phenomenon is misguided at best. Their desire to reach the Room was by itself an act of faith, and by extension, Tarkovsky’s affirmation of the necessity for such leaps of faith.

Upon arriving in the Zone, the color palette switches from lifeless, desaturated browns and greys to actual color. Once they had traversed past the boundaries of allowable thought, the color and vibrancy of life was accessible to them. Despite the landscape of ruin and desolation that lay before the trio, they managed to marvel at beauty. Once again, Tarkovsky reveals his cynicism towards humanity by having the Stalker note that the beauty was the product of the absence of other people.

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The Writer’s ideological convictions are challenged as they travel deeper into the Zone. As an archetype for the artistic class, Tarkovsky lays bare the psychological schism that Marxism created amongst the creatives in one of the film’s few moments of dry levity.

Writer: My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the world. And my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy meat. But what do I want?

Marxism had supplanted any notion of higher morality and placed the locus of virtue squarely within the hands of the State. Subsequently, the Writer’s desire to see vegetarianism win over was merely a metaphor for the political orthodoxy he’d been trained to uphold. He views his desire for meat as bourgeois false consciousness. Ultimately, he’s conflicted because his sense of Self had been disrupted by venturing beyond the ideological boundaries that were protected and enforced by the Zone.

When the three men reach the Room, they become suspicious of one another’s motivations. The Professor produces a nuclear bomb and threatens to detonate it because he doesn’t want the power of the Room to fall into the wrong hands. Conflict ensues and recriminations are exchanged. After some tortured confessions, the Professor disassembles the bomb and the scene grinds to a halt in a cloud of defeat and resignation. I suggest that Tarkovsky is saying something about how deeply uncomfortable and distrustful Russians were with the idea of freedom. So much so that they constructed their own ideological panopticon.

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Upon returning from the Zone, the Stalker is reunited with his wife and child. In one of the monologues delivered by Stalker’s wife, Tarkovsky is attempting to access something truly primeval within the Russian soul. Some kind of deep sadness which insists that happiness can only emerge unless there is sorrow. Yet it is a sorrow leavened ever so slightly with a tiny granule of hope. Who knows exactly from where this emanates, but it does perhaps offer an additional cultural insight into the psychological legacy of the Russian people on which Marxism so hungrily feasted.

Stalker’s Wife: You know, Mama was very opposed to it. You’ve probably already guessed, that he’s one of God’s fools. Everyone around here used to laugh at him. He was such a wretched muddler. Mama used to say: “he’s a stalker, a marked man, an eternal jailbird. Remember the kind of children stalkers have.” I didn’t even argue. I knew all about it, that he was a marked man, a jailbird. I knew about the kids. Only what could I do? I was sure I’d be happy with him. I knew there’d be a lot of sorrow, but I’d rather know bitter-sweet happiness, than a grey, uneventful life. Perhaps I invented all this later. But when he come up to me and said: “Come with me”, I went. And I’ve never regretted it. Never. There was a lot of grief, and fear, and pain, but I’ve never regretted it, nor envied anyone. It’s just fate. It’s life, it’s us. And if there were no sorrow in our lives, it wouldn’t be better, it would be worse. Because then there’d be no happiness, either. And there’d be no hope.

The resolution of the film reveals the Stalker’s daughter moving three glasses using what is apparently telekinetic power as a snatch of “Ode to Joy” surfaces. It’s enigmatic, but I believe this is the glimmer of hope that Tarkovsky is offering. Monkey represents a new generation which possesses abilities that were unimaginable to their forebears: the ability to cultivate and express joy. An ability so powerful it can only be represented as a paranormal psychic power.

Aesthetically, the film leverages the decrepit and dilapidated architecture of the USSR to create a post-apocalyptic vibe that’s easily among the bleakest natural settings committed to film.  The Zone was inspired by the 1957 Chelyabinsk incident which was both the first major nuclear accident prior to Chernobyl and third largest in history. Ever dedicated to the purity of his vision, Tarkovsky filmed the Zone at an abandoned Estonian power plant which quite possibly hastened his own demise along with two other members of the film crew resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals.

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I suspect that a large part of the allure of Tarkovsky and Stalker in particular is that it represents a manifestation of the great Holy Grail sought by artists across the world throughout the ages: a pure artistic expression unsullied by the taint of capitalistic profit seeking. Stalker is very much a film made with painstaking attention to the most minute details. Almost nothing that makes it into the frame seems left to chance. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a film that people will actually want to watch.

Stalker is a film which elicits admiration more than enjoyment. As much as I am tempted to get lost in the labyrinth of symbolic possibility that so enraptures the cinephiles, I see this as a pretty explicit manifestation of the Russian pysche’s very fragile grasp at humanity desperately laboring under the weight of emotional and physical devastation wrought by 60 years of iron fisted subjugation and state enforced social engineering. Since this is a work of art which leans very heavily on symbolism, people will extract a meaning from it which confirms their own bias and disposition. Predictably, the progressive media in America has heaped praise on it because they see it as antidote to Trumpism and a rallying cry for socialism itself. The fact that a film that’s this unremittingly dreary and downcast is perceived as some kind of rallying cry for socialism just goes to show how deeply this ideology warps the psyche and possesses the will of the individual.  If anything, Stalker should be taken as a dire warning of the inhospitable future that awaits should we allow this ideology to hollow out what remains of our souls.

Stalker is indeed a work of Serious Art® and I completely understand the cult of devotion it has inspired. Like all good works of high modernism, it contains the possibility of extracting multitudes of meaning. However, I genuinely don’t think Tarkovsky intended this film to be another occasion for endless academic navel gazing or a self-centered circle jerk for the intelligentsia. Tarkovsky was making an earnest attempt to tell the truth of the Russian experience by using a SF premise as a metaphysical allegory. John Semley’s dumb Salon piece praises the film for all the wrong reasons. Yes, the plodding pace feels radical in contrast to the engineered dopamine rushes we get from contemporary cinema, but it’s because the film conveys a deep sense of despair. Being boring is not an aesthetic virtue that is inherently good. Good art encompasses the entirety of the human experience, but most importantly, it has intention and should actually connect with its audience. Would Stalker have been funded on the free market? Probably not. Grim meditations on the human experience don’t make for big ticket sales. Especially if they’re the product of life under socialist rule. I’m deeply sympathetic to artistic expression which challenges norms and defies expectations. Most people do not share this belief, and as a result, won’t bother watching Stalker. And that’s fine. No one is required to consume art which evokes boredom and despair. In the end, that is perhaps that is the true legacy of the film. Just as millions died chasing the abstraction that Marxism represented, few will heed the subtle warning buried under Tarkovsky’s abstractions.

Stalker: Are you awake? You were talking recently about the meaning… of our… life… unselfishness of art… Let’s take music… It’s really least of all connected; to say the truth, if it is connected at all, then in an idealess way, mechanically, with an empty sound… Without… without associations… Nonetheless the music miraculously penetrates into the very soul! What is resonating in us in answer to the harmonized noise? And turns it for us into the source of great delight… And unites us, and shakes us? What is its purpose? And, above all, for whom? You will say: for nothing, and… and for nobody, just so. Unselfish. Though it’s not so… perhaps… For everything, in the end, has its own meaning… Both the meaning and the cause…

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On Modernism, Postmodernism and the Degradation of Western Values in Art

Salvador Dali

Concomitant with the ascendancy of the trends themselves, conservatives and liberty-minded intellectuals ranging from Ayn Rand to Dennis Prager have inveighed against modernist and postmodernist trends in art on the grounds that it represents a degradation of aesthetic standards and, by extension, Western values. As an artist myself and one who is and has been sympathetic to these modes of expression, this is an argument to which I’ve devoted considerable thought. While I agree with the central propositions put forth by these individuals, I’m not ready to throw the modernist baby out with the bathwater. Art can and should affirm immutable, transcendent values that will carry on beyond the lifetimes of their creators. Art should also be grounded in tradition and those who pursue it should be held to the highest standards.  I propose that modernist and postmodernist trends, or what was once regarded as avant-garde, have largely supplanted any notions of Western traditionalism. Objective standards of beauty and excellence have indeed given way to a bottomless relativism. Contemporary art is a little too consumed by nihilism, ugliness and abstraction for its own sake.  If artists consume themselves with rebellion against values and standards to which no one is holding them accountable, then it’s little more than empty posturing.

Modernism was transgressive in its day because the standard bearers of traditionalism were the mainstream in art. When the impressionists departed from classical realism, it was transgressive because classical realism was the standard. The various movements that defined the 20th century saw art moving further and further away from these traditions to the point where avant-garde no longer has any meaning other than to signify a broad body of artistic expression defined by a departure from or outright annihilation of any semblance of traditionalism.

Pablo Picasso

If artists have no commitment to uphold anything sacred or beautiful and the profane and ugly are the default settings, then it reflects a rottenness in the cultural soul just as Ayn Rand asserted.

Art (including literature) is the barometer of a culture. It reflects the sum of a society’s deepest philosophical values: not its professed notions and slogans, but its actual view of man and of existence. – Ayn Rand

Art, at some level, must edify and exalt the divine spirit or some universal idea of cosmic Oneness. Without it, humanity drifts towards solipsism and nihilism. The avant-garde only has power to shock when it serves as a counterweight to an overbearance of traditionalism. In the world of art, there is literally no boundary which has not been transgressed, no sacred idol undesecrated nor profanity unspoken. We’re pretty far away from any kind of hegemony of traditionalism in the art world. Just as atheism and anarchism may be philosophically and logically untenable positions, each argument serves as a permanent counterpoint to institutional power. I believe that the avant-garde is the active attempt to concretize these philosophical positions.

Willem de Kooning


Jackson Pollock

People are generally attracted to art, music and literature that has identifiable structure, steady rhythms, heroism and the pursuit of justice, themes which address relatable slices of life in memorable and clever ways, and emotional content that’s somehow uplifting. For better and worse, the avant-garde has generally eschewed these conventions. Conversely, people generally do not want to consume art that is too abstract or dwells on humanity’s tendency towards depravity.

That said, the avant-garde has produced a wealth of innovation which cannot be denied. There is a place for expressionism, abstraction and pastiche. The surreal and the grotesque have their place in a panorama of artistic expression in which the traditionally beautiful occupies a prominent position. Admittedly, avant-garde has rebel cache because it was used as both anti-communist propaganda by the CIA and was repudiated by the Nazis as “degeneracy”. Anything that scandalizes the upper crust intelligentsia, pisses off the Nazis, and gets subsidized to fight communism despite being created by artists largely sympathetic to communism is going to have some built-in appeal. The avant-garde’s associations with dubious ideologies should not be ignored, but that should not preclude exploration or reevaluation of the ideas either.

Yves Tanguy

From my perspective, the avant-garde only occurs as such in proportion to the degree to which the tradition from which it departs is recognizable. Oftentimes, the most innovative artists walk a fine line between tradition and modernism and find a way to reconcile seemingly disparate aesthetics.

The critics of the avant-garde have a point. If nothing else, the central proposition that animates nearly every avant-garde movement is the departure from objective reality.  As much as I am supportive of a revival of classical standards in art, I’m equally enthusiastic about the renewed vitality it will bring to the avant-garde.

René François Ghislain Magritte

Schooltree: Heterotopia

When I heard that Lainey Schooltree was composing a rock opera, I could hear my own inner Boromir at the Council of Elrond. It was as though I had just heard the news that the One Ring was to be brought to Mordor. 

One does not simply write a prog rock opera, Lainey. The black gates of the music industry are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with Arianna Grande and DNCE and Beiber. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!

Never one to back down from an epic musical calling, that’s precisely what she set out to do. Fortunately for us, she succeeded and Heterotopia is the prog rock opera you’ve been waiting for.  A project four years in the making, Heterotopia is a sprawling 100-minute epic which earns a place alongside Tommy, The Wall, or any other comparable effort you can name. Yes, it’s that good. 

Heterotopia is a sort of metaphysical Hero’s Journey mixed with gothic fantasy. It’s a pomo Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings by way of Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a down and out singer named Suzi who is disillusioned with the music industry, but finds her reality shattered when she follows a 100-legged cat down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality called Otherspace. While in Otherspace, she discovers that she has detached from her physical form and may not be able to recover her corporeal self. Worse, Otherspace is slowly being overrun by an encroaching darkness which threatens to enter the physical world and Suzi finds herself faced with an existential choice.

As good as it is, Heterotopia walks a very interesting tightrope. It has a seemingly populist heart, but it’s counterpoised by an overall vibe of gothic gloom. It may be a difficult pill to swallow for those expecting the kind of ecstatic emotional peaks one might reasonably expect from a rock musical.  As a work of progressive rock, it’s an unmitigated triumph. Heterotopia is a cornucopia of musical riches for even the most rabid prog head. It has all of prog’s virtues and none of its vices. It has epic melodies, knotty riffs, angular rhythms, squiggly synth lines, dense harmonies, and plenty of odd metered nerdity. There’s also plenty of old fashioned arena sized, fist pumping rockage. None of it feels excessive, and all of it is ultimately subordinate to Schooltree’s impeccable instincts for songcraft.  It is short on any kind of extended improvisation, but when the guitar jam and synth freakout finally arrive, it’s some serious lighters-in-the-air shit. 

Schooltree’s prog bona fides are unimpeachable. She has clearly done her turntable homework. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an obvious musical and thematic touchstone, but Schooltree hacks the prog genome and produces a refreshing and satisfying mutation of her own. Heterotopia reaches for the towering heights of Yes, Genesis, Queen, Supertramp and even deeper recesses of the family tree like Klaatu and Gentle Giant. I’m even going to second Jon Davis at Exposé by saying that Heterotopia bears some similarities to early Saga. One also detects the unmistakable DNA signature of Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Jesus Christ Superstar coursing through its bloodstream. Musicals should be judged on the strength of the vocal storytelling, and Heterotopia doesn’t disappoint. Schooltree has an equal gift for the anthemic hook, the spectral vocal choir, and the spooky incantations of Dreaming-era Kate Bush. The songs are packed with hooks, but Schooltree always manages to subvert your expectations with a clever turn of phrase. The catchiness of the songs is offset by lyrics filled with ghosts, zombies, illusions, and pits of darkness. Schooltree is one of those artists who writes the most beautifully captivating melody or irresistible pop earworm, but when you listen to what she’s saying, the subject matter often belies the emotional tenor of the music.  

The drama of Heterotopia centers around Suzi’s quest to reclaim her corporeal self. In order to achieve this, she must confront the fallen queen of Otherspace, Enantiodromia. The mythological surface of the piece is merely a vehicle for some rather morbid existential ruminations over the nature of consciousness, death, and free will. By combining prog, epic fantasy, and abstract philosophy, Heterotopia has certainly sealed a trifecta of high concept artiness. There’s a Nietzsche reference or two to be found amidst the Foucauldian mindfuckery. The central theme seems to revolve around the line between reality versus illusion, and the extent to which the latter shapes the former. Prog has always been a platform for big ideas and epic narratives, and this conjunction of mythic storytelling and philosophical speculation places Heterotopia squarely within the canon of classic prog.  

All of which returns us to the unique position this work occupies.  Prog enjoyed a cultural moment back in the 70’s and, to a certain extent, the 80’s. Nowadays, progressive rock of this kind caters to a niche audience. The type of prog that Schooltree is offering will doubtless please the faithful, but whether this particular delivery system will move the meter beyond the prog laity remains to be seen. It’s a Hero’s Journey, but the metaphysics are pretty abstract and the tone is very dark. Beneath the patina of mythological fantasy, Suzi’s tale involves what appears to be a standard dramatic arc tracing her fall, redemption, and resurrection, but it remains strangely suspended in a state of perpetual discord. Even when it reaches its conclusion, it sounds triumphant and the music signals resolution, but you’re left with lingering questions. Suzi’s transformation is obviously meant to be a profound shift, but there’s something slightly underwhelming about it. This is where Heterotopia tilts towards postmodernism. Schooltree herself says that the central idea is that “reality is an illusion”, and this insight is supposedly what liberated Suzi to shape her reality. This is a fairly standard postmodern premise, and it’s an idea that has been explored pretty extensively in every corner of the artistic world for some time. 

However, none of these concerns detract from the heroic achievement of this record. There is a level of ambition and flat out artistic brilliance in this work that simply cannot be denied. If this sounds like your thing, buy it now

Kurt Vonnegut: Harrison Bergeron

If you were to compile a list of works of speculative fiction whose predictions of the future were truly prescient, it would have to include Kurt Vonnegut’s short story masterpiece, Harrison BergeronI am hard pressed to think of any work which so perfectly captures the pathological mentality of the modern day social justice warrior so perfectly and traces out the ramifications of this mentality if it were made into public policy. Sadly, it’s a process which seems well underway.  
Vonnegut manages to build his dystopian world in one elegant paragraph: 

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

With this single paragraph, he places us in a nightmare future where the crusade for equality of outcomes has been pursued to its fullest conclusion. In this not-too-distant future, the US Constitution contains over 200 amendments, people have lost the distinction between positive and negative rights, and perverted its original intent beyond all recognition. The ideas of equality before the law, individual rights and equality of opportunity preserved by a Constitutionally limited State have been completely supplanted by an all-consuming obsession with equal results which can only be attained by destroying uniqueness, individualism and humanity itself. Equality is, of course, enforced by a government bureaucrat, United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. Anyone who possesses a quality, attribute or skill that might set him or her apart from everyone else must be handicapped in order to preserve equality of outcomes. The intelligent receive a mental implant which short circuits their ability to think. The attractive are forced to hide their beauty behind masks. The physically able are forced to carry sacks of lead balls padlocked to their bodies. Those with beautiful voices are given speech impediments. And so on. 

The action centers around George and Hazel Bergeron as they watch their son, Harrison, commit the highest act of sedition possible after escaping prison at age fourteen.  Harrison sheds his handicaps and dazzles the world by dancing a ballet on live television before the world. 

One need only to look at any of the social justice jihads being carried out on campuses and in the media to discover that Vonnegut was on to something.  The decades-long feminist outrage against “patriarchal beauty standards” has culminated in the so-called “body positivity” movement which not only destroys the one objective standard present in modeling, but seemingly seeks to reprogram manhood to be attracted to overweight women. The politics of grievance have reached an apex with the never-ending quest to name and shame anyone with “privilege”. Genetic and biological traits now supersede individual rights or merit and are sufficient grounds for legislative redress or special administrative dispensation by today’s social justice jihadists. Perhaps the most pernicious of all the social justice crusades is the pursuit of gender neutrality by those who insist that gender segregation in sports somehow reinforces “harmful” gender stereotypes.  And let’s not forget the deathless claim of a wage gap between men and women which is shamelessly flogged by the political and media establishment despite being debunked several times over. 

Meanwhile, different versions of the United States Handicapper General get created in college campuses and different levels of federal and local government throughout the country. 

What other outcome is possible from this mad pursuit of “equality” if not the anesthetized, institutionalized mediocrity and servitude portrayed in Harrison Bergeron?  As Paul Gottfried and many others have argued, this therapeutic agenda being administered by the democratic priesthood and their lackeys seeks nothing more than to debilitate the population and pave the path to socialist serfdom.  The only equality one can reasonably expect to uphold as an ideal is equality of opportunity. Once you seek equality of results, you destroy the foundation of liberty upon which any possibility for real achievement rests. Speculative fiction of this nature is meant to serve as a warning against the realities of the present. The signs of the nightmare world Vonnegut portrayed are everywhere. Here’s to everyone discovering their own inner Harrison. 

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Stories of musical pop culture icons are being adapted for the screen with increasing frequency in recent years. Most fail in one way or another, but Straight Outta Compton is one that’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in the story of one of hip-hop’s most controversial and influential groups. SoC tells the story of the rise of seminal gangsta rap group NWA as well as the ascent of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as solo artists. Thematically, the film covers a lot of ground. It’s a story of music industry glory, but it’s another vivid reminder of the difficulty in maintaining integrity within the band when the money starts rolling. More broadly, it confronts us with the challenges of urban black families faced with the prevalence of inner city crime and gang culture. SoC is also an important film for this political moment since free speech and police brutality are themes that are deeply embedded into the fabric of the story. 

The film opens with a drug deal between Eazy-E (aka Eric Wright) and some random gang bangers which escalates very quickly. Right away, the film is taking us into the Compton underworld of the mid-80’s. Everyone is packing heat, drug dealing is one of the few engines of economic mobility that’s easily attainable, every negotiation carries an implicit death threat, and “bitch” and “nigga” are freely deployed throughout normal conversation. It wasn’t called gangsta rap for nothing. The deal devolves into threats, but everyone scrambles for safety when the armored military-style battering ram vehicle rounds the corner, plows right through the front door and cops swarm the house. Welcome to Compton, bitches.

When we’re introduced to a young Dr. Dre (aka Andre Young), his Roy Ayers induced blissed out reverie is violently interrupted by his irate single mother. She castigates him for failing to attend a job interview while simultaneously reminding him how hard she worked to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Dre isn’t having a word of it, and packs his bags so he can pursue his music career free of persistent maternal nagging. The film is giving us a sense of the burden black single mothers carry imparting the importance of developing personal responsibility and meaningful job skills in the absence of strong, paternal role models.  

We meet a young Ice Cube (aka O’Shea Jackson) penning rhymes and staring out the school bus window. Middle-class white teenagers idle away to pop music in fancy cars and clothes while he awaits being shipped back to the dreary impoverishment of Compton. The bus ride home is interrupted by armed gangsters whose sole intention is to intimidate the kids who taunted them during the route. Once again, we’re reminded that gangsters were a common phenomenon in South Central LA, and the thug life offered a sense of purpose, belonging and upward mobility for young blacks who faced a seemingly hopeless existence short on positive parental figures or examples. 

Upon his arrival home, he is treated to the prodigious turntable skills of Dre who had recently taken up residence on his couch. With the knockout combination of Dre’s instincts for production and Cube’s pugilistic street poetry, the two friends set their sights on carving out a new sound in rap that reflected the gritty reality of life in Compton. The bonds of friendship which created a new hip-hop dynasty were sealed.  

One of the great strengths of the film is the absence of phony PC propriety and artificial attempts at racial correctness. The unvarnished portrait of urban black speech and gender relations all by itself is a glorious kick in the teeth to social justice warriors who are constantly bitching about “harmful representations in the media of Marginalized Group (fill in the blank)”. Admittedly, the portraits are not the most flattering towards this particular segment of the African-American population, but when contrasted with the modern Hollywood PC orthodoxy which mandates that blacks always be portrayed in a positive light, this film feels like it’s making an above average attempt at honesty instead of trying to pander to phony leftist piety. In an early scene where Dre and Cube are given a slot to perform at a popular nightclub, the owner sternly reminds the young MCs that he wants the people focused on “pussy, not pistols”.  They ignore his admonitions and perform the track to overwhelming enthusiasm.  The track contained many of the lyrical themes which became commonplace within the gangsta rap genre: gritty, profanity laced realism, unrepentant portraits of guns and criminal activity, and raunchy sex.  

In many ways, the film is the story of Eazy- E’s role in creating NWA’s success. Emboldened by the positive reception to their track, Dre and Cube convince Eazy-E to bankroll their first recorded effort. When the crew they hire unceremoniously quit, Dre persuades E to sing the lead vocal. Here, the film gives an interesting insight into Dre’s gift for producing as well as E’s unsteady flow at this early stage in their career.  The result of this effort was “Boyz In Da Hood” and this initial success laid the groundwork for NWA.  

A big theme in the film is the challenge of maintaining integrity, professionalism and independence in the music industry. Especially when the money, drugs and women are readily accessible and the behavior and habits they acquired in the streets of Compton informed their business interactions as adults. The two dubious business partnerships between Eazy-E, Jerry Heller, Suge Knight and Dre drove a lot of the interpersonal drama between the characters.  Heller discovers E when “Boyz In Da Hood” was climbing the charts and helped steer the Ruthless crew to global success, but the absence of transparency in the contracts eventually drives a wedge between the friends. It’s insinuated that Heller took advantage of NWA, but it’s not entirely clear that he was completely unscrupulous, either.  Not only does Heller exhibit courage and loyalty throughout NWA’s ascent, but he talks E down from exacting vengeance on Suge Knight after a business meeting turns violent.  Suge Knight, on the other hand, is portrayed as a sociopathic thug with few scruples, a hot temper and a propensity towards arbitrary violence.  Clearly, the relationship between him and Dre wasn’t completely fruitless since Dre’s career went stratospheric during the Death Row era, but it brought with it a great deal of dysfunction and more than a few hangers on.

The relationship towards law enforcement plays prominently throughout the film and gives it an urgency that speaks directly to currently escalating tensions between police and the black community.  The film portrays the incident which inspired “Fuck Tha Police”, and not only is it an example of the indignities to which inner city blacks are routinely subjected, it brings the vitriol of the song to life even more vividly.  While recording Straight Outta Compton in upscale Torrance, California, the members of NWA were minding their own business outside the studio when cops descended on the scene and demanded that each of the members drop face down on to the sidewalk. Heller arrives shortly thereafter, demands that they be released and chastises the officers for assuming criminal intent based on their appearance. Heller instructs the band members to rise, but the cops refuse to allow them rise until they give the instruction. They forced the men to eat concrete and their dignity for several minutes before issuing a command to stand up.  Heller indignantly reminds the cops they’re rap artists, but the black police chief responds with a disparaging and contemptuous retort that “rap isn’t art” and tells them never to be seen in Torrance again.

NWA get their sweet revenge when the song explodes in popularity, but it draws the attention of the FBI while they’re on their first tour. Prior to their now infamous concert in Detroit, the police threaten to arrest NWA if they perform “Fuck Tha Police” during the show. Heller is rattled and advises that they abstain from performing the song to avoid any entanglements with the federal government, but NWA aren’t willing to back down on free speech grounds.  In one of the film’s finest scenes, the band members pause after finishing a song and give one another a knowing look.  The crowd is roaring with applause while Cube tells the audience about how they were threatened and the cops stationed throughout the venue grimace in anticipation of their defiance. They milk the drama of the moment just right, and when Cube instructs the crowd to hoist their middle fingers aloft and finally cues the song with, “Yo, Dre. I got something to say”, it’s positively explosive. The crowd goes mental, but shots are fired and mayhem ensues ending in the apprehension of the members of the group.

When it comes to the message of NWA and the success of the gangsta rap phenomenon, I’m divided. As a full throated advocate for free speech and free markets, I believe that NWA were fully within their rights to write and rap about whatever they damn well pleased and that the government had no business attempting to censor or silence them.  On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to cultural and religious conservatives (and even secular progressives) who find the lyrics distasteful and don’t want their children exposed to that lifestyle. I can appreciate that a parent who is attempting to impart an appreciation for monogamy, education, conventional employment and a respect for the law might feel a bit of frustration towards the success of gangsta rap. I’m also sympathetic to black community leaders and parents who also may be galled by their success because their lifestyles and message run counter to their efforts to turn their own communities around. Regardless, NWA’s message burns with intensity and relevance mostly because they were the first and arguably the best at this particular style of hip-hop. Like every innovator, scores of imitators have sprung up in their wake, but they’ll never match the originality of the pioneers themselves.

Straight Outta Compton is ultimately a story of five African-American men who achieved success by simply raising their voices and never backing down.  But like many other stories of its kind, the success came with a price.  Eazy-E’s fall from relevance, financial woes and his untimely death from AIDS was just one of the consequences of a man who was arguably ill prepared to deal with either the temptations all around him or the responsibility he took upon himself. Though neither story was a focus of the film, the death of Tupac Shakur and the imprisonment of Suge Knight also serve as a reminder that the gangster lifestyle eventually catches up with you.  Both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube may have had the talent and maturity to both persevere and thrive, but neither of them was without flaw in their interpersonal or business dealings. There are articles complaining about the ways the film glossed over some of the ugly and inconvenient truths, but I doubt there’s a biopic out there that gets everything completely right. The film makes it sufficiently clear that none of these men were saints.  If you are someone who feels strongly that the omission of certain facts supersedes and delegitimizes the broader story the film is telling, then you should probably skip the film.

The filmmakers clearly wanted to connect the message and story of NWA to the current tensions over race and police brutality.  The Rodney King beating and and the riots which erupted in the wake of the trial verdict were weaved into the film as a vivid reminder that the Ferguson and Baltimore incidents are not new.  While many will likely shoehorn the narrative of the film into the now omnipresent and shopworn narrative of intractable, systemic racism embedded in the American psyche and institutions, the film very subtly reveals the true origins of these problems for anyone who’s actually paying attention. Like many other urban black neighborhoods, crime rates in Compton outpace the national averages. Single motherhood rates are disproportionate to other ethnic populations. Taken together, you’re going to have a community which naturally requires more aggressive policing. The police are certainly not above reproach or criticism, but the persistent effort to paint every instance of police brutality and harassment as evidence of “systemic racism” serves no one.

The performances from all the young leads are first rate and the soundtrack is filled with nuggets of classic funk, R&B, 80’s pop and hip-hop. This is a film that captures the voices of rage, defiance and alienation which changed the course of hip-hop and reverberate to this day. Like NWA themselves, the film is brash and unapologetic. Highly recommended. 

Live Aid: The Terrible Truth

Live Aid: The Terrible Truth

If you haven’t yet read Spin magazine’s stunning exposé of the true legacy of Live Aid, you owe it to yourself to give it a read.  Just like the other well-intentioned social justice musical venture whose legacy is equally dubious, Artists United Against Apartheid, this story proves that there is a vast difference between virtue signalling and being a champion for the expansion of human freedom and market economics. 

There isn’t much that needs to be added to this story other than to emphasize that Marxism creates misery and oppression everywhere it travels, and that the progressive narrative of an all-encompassing white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy is once again exposed for the pathetic, childish farce that it is. 

U2 Live at TD Garden: July 14, 2015

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U2 are easy to take for granted.

They’ve been so huge for so many years, it’s easy to dismiss them as mind numbing pablum. Their mawkishness and sentimentality begs for ridicule.  I’m accustomed to hearing musicians deride them and make snarky comments just to get a few easy “likes” on social media. 

The funny thing is that I really like U2.  I always have. 

My wife suggested that we see them and since I hadn’t seen them, I realized I’d missed out on the very phenomenon that has sealed a bond with millions of fans and placed them in the firmament of rock in the first place. 

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And boy, am I glad I did.

U2 are a band who’ve earned the superlatives.  They are the consummate Big Time Rock Band. 

For over two hours, U2 reminded me that love is the healing force of the universe and that maybe, just maybe, we can redeem ourselves through rock music.  Perhaps most significantly, they reminded me that sometimes the most transgressive, punk rock thing you can do as an artist is to write a song about your mother and actually affirm the gift of life and express love. 

In a pop culture world overrun by narcissistic wankers and smug, detached handlebar mustachioed would-be hipsters so consumed by their cynical sneering and ironic, postmodern deconstructions, U2 come across as the real radicals. 

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The music succeeds on so many levels.  It’s got a missionary sense of purpose, but never forgets that rock and roll is a secular church.  It has equal reverence for Motown, Jimi Hendrix, Kraftwerk and Elvis, but never forgets its Dublin roots.

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It’s music that says “All I want is you” and means every word.  They are a band so grounded in the emotional truth of what they’re laying down, it’s really difficult to remain unmoved.

The tour is called the Innocence to Experience Tour and naturally, as the title suggests, the show traces the arc of their development as artists and men. 

Visually, this show was a marvel.  There was a giant rectangular structure which served as a projection surface and an elevated stage.  At various points in the show, the screen showed animated renderings of their neighborhood, star constellations, oceans, nighttime cityscapes, and a virtual Johnny Cash among many other things. 

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Dublin’s favorite sons paid homage to their formative years with several selections from their latest release, “Songs of Innocence”.  I was especially moved by their rendition of “Iris”; Bono’s tribute to his mother. He set up the song with a story about his mother’s death and how it served as an opportunity to deepen his artistry.  “We all find ourselves orphans at some point in life,” he said.  As someone who lost his own mother, this sentiment hit home for me in a big way.  

U2 have never been shy about their political convictions and openly proclaim their desire for peace, justice and love in many songs.  The scars of violence in Ireland were transformed into a plea for justice for victims of terrorism in “Raised by Wolves” and a pared down “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.  Photos of victims of IRA violence were woven into a devastating digital collage while the words JUSTICE FOR THE FORGOTTEN hovered over the images like a command from beyond the grave. 

“We must never give in to fear.  There are people who hate freedom.  Who hate rock music. Who hate women.  We must never give in.  We must send the love that’s present here and radiate it everywhere so that it reaches every community,” exhorted Bono. 

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Right on, man. 

At midpoint of the set, they began to lean more heavily towards the classic canon and the show gathered momentum. 

“Bullet the Blue Sky” revealed U2 at their rockist best and successfully channeled Cream and Band of Gypsys.  Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen churned out a thunderous groove that bored into the center of the earth while Edge’s searing sheets of feedback and noise soared over the top.  A kaleidoscopic mashup of Wall Street trading pits and American iconography served as the visual companion to Bono’s Morrisonesque declamations.  “America is an idea. I want to be part of that idea”. Nice work, guys. 

The highlight was without question their transcendent rendition of “Pride”.  “This song is for peacemakers,” declared Bono. He stepped back and allowed the congregation to carry the wordless vocal phrase; gently goading the crowd to ever increasing intensity culminating in full throated ecstasy with each chorus.  This is the kind of secular devotion that is often attempted but rarely matched. 

For their encore, they delivered a trio of gems; “Beautiful Day”, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.  By the time the chiming chords of the latter began, the crowd was in the palm of their hands.  Once again, Bono didn’t even sing the first verse and simply allowed the song to be carried by the reverie of the crowd.

They exited the stage one by one until all that remained were the sounds of Edge and Bono. The show ended just as it began. Bono sneaked in a line of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”.

Message received, gentlemen.  Thank you for bringing it home. 

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Sly & The Family Stone: Don’t Call Me Nigger

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I was listening to this song last night, and I genuinely wondered if we’re headed towards a culture of repression that would censor this song purely because of the title. 

I’m concerned that we’ve already become a culture so consumed by the surface appearance and rhetoric of diversity, and yet so afraid to be labeled a racist for saying something that might be perceived as a microaggression. 

I’m concerned that we’ve become a culture that stigmatizes the usage of a word all by itself and makes no distinctions around intent or context. 

I’m concerned that we have become a culture that encourages self-appointed racism cops to go around pointing the finger of reproach and finding RACISM in everyone but themselves. 

I’m concerned that we’ve become a culture that’s more comfortable ascribing blame to symbols and doling out moronic lectures about “white privilege” than ascertaining responsibility for the actions of individuals. 

My biggest fear is that we’ve conflated speech and words with actual violence. Subsequently, we are ceding a fundamental liberty that each of us has to the authority of the State and all of the sycophantic, authoritarian would-be do-gooders who believe that calling everyone and everything racist is actually creating any real racial harmony. 

If policing speech over the usage of words or enforcing some prescribed template of PC virtue becomes the norm, then we have effectively ceded free thought and agency themselves. 

This song is precisely why free speech matters.

We have the opportunity to access the best in ourselves because we’re free. 

We have the opportunity to see the basic humanity in everyone because we’re free.  

We have the opportunity to create racial harmony because we’re free. 

Not because some self-appointed social justice cop posted a link to a feminist website and not because a politician doesn’t like what someone said or wants to use the power of the government to pass a hate speech law. 

But you have to choose free speech and you have to be willing to defend it.  Not with a gun, but with the power of your own convictions. 

What will you choose?

Solid Sound Day 3: June 28, 2015

Despite some unseasonably cold summer rain, my wife and I set out to Mass Moca to take in the sights and sounds of the conclusion of Solid Sound 2015. 

As an artist who’s consistently staked out adventurous musical territory over the course of my own career, I’ve sought to support venues, promoters, and events which present ambitious visions which fall outside the common perception of “mainstream” taste and still manage to reach a mass audience.  Solid Sound is a festival that aspires to achieve this goal and by and large, succeeds.  That said, there is a little bit of a stuffy and oppressive air to the whole thing. Needless to say, holding a music and art festival at a museum is going to have a bit of a THIS IS ART vibe to it.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but such a self-congratulatory atmosphere creates its own aura of stultifying conservatism. I measure the success of any art by how successfully it balances its various ambitions and most importantly, whether it manages to convey some basic humanity and soul. What is this artist saying about life and the human condition fundamentally?

The three acts we saw managed to present music that was simultaneously virtuosic, visionary, and futuristic, but occasionally lapsed into antiseptic and sterile intellectualism.  Some more than others. 

This tendency was perhaps best exemplified by the Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom’s Stained Radiance.  Since I was familiar with Mr. Cline’s work, I was looking forward to this set.  Stained Radiance featured Nels doing his solo guitar thing with various looping devices, delays and effects while Norton accompanied with a painting improvisation and three dancers added a movement element.  This certainly had all the ingredients and potential to be a pretentious wank, but ended up having enough of an emotional center to engage.  To my surprise, the real glue of the performance was Mr. Wisdom. He painted on a semi-translucent canvas which was projected on to the main screen in the hall.  It had the effect of being a white board so he could create negative space with a wiping tool and wash away an image with relative ease.  His style had a phantasmagoric quality to it.  The color palette was dark. His opening image appeared to be a surreal impression of Mr. Cline. Strange monstrous humanoids were conjured from amorphous blotches of paint. Anthropomorphic animals and human forms with wings took shape. The surface allowed the paint to run and gave each form a melted quality that was naturally very creepy.

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Mr. Cline churned out subsonic drones, shards of harmony and melody, shrieking spears of noise, ghostly pulsations, and icy riffs at various moments throughout the piece.  The two aesthetics were complementary.

One of the dancers was outfitted with a diaphanous fabric sheath which lent itself to a performance which resembled either an aquatic plant or a flame burning in slow motion.  Another dancer did a passage with a long piece of fabric that was meant to convey imprisonment or a struggle to be free from some kind of bondage.  The physicality of the dancers certainly lent the piece some much needed drama and made it more of a performance, but it still felt a little aimless and pretentious. 

What did they intend to convey with this performance? I’m not entirely sure.  Clearly, they were content to let the process unfold and allow the audience to generate their own experiences and interpretations.  I find that leaving it entirely up to the audience to extract a message from abstract art can be a cop out.  Abstraction for its own sake can be an evasion and a way to avoid risking any real emotions. 

This performance suffered from that pitfall a bit. It felt non-committal. I sensed vague allusions to gender based conflicts.  I sensed some struggle to be free.  I sensed a small appeal to love buried beneath the layers of darkness and abstraction. 

It had a foreboding and ominous atmosphere. It more or less held my attention. It was among the most successful attempts at this kind of performance I’ve personally seen and I’ve actually done gigs that were almost identical conceptually. However, I was not deeply moved. I’m going to seek out one of Mr. Cline’s bands next time. 

One of the great successes and recurring themes of Solid Sound is that Cool is ageless and that making vital art is the pursuit of a lifetime.  The greats may not draw the attention of the pop culture spotlight, but they are always creating and cultivating their own unique language without regard to which direction the winds of popular taste are blowing.  The booking of Richard Thompson, NRBQ and the great Charles Lloyd were testimony to this. 

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Charles Lloyd is one of the last remaining giants of 20th century modern jazz and his CV is indeed impressive

Not only was he backed up by a first rate rhythm section comprised of Gerald Clayton on piano, Kendrick Scott on drums, and Joe Sanders on bass, he was joined by Bill Frisell too!  This more than compensated for the unsatisfying and uninspired pairing with Sam Amidon. 

Mr. Lloyd exuded the ease and confidence of a true master.  His music was equal parts post-bop modernism and blues inflected spiritual exploration. It is big hearted and filled with romanticism but still leaves ample space for experimentation.  Most importantly, it was always swinging.  Frisell’s languid, cubist Americana avant-bop was totally complementary. 

We concluded our afternoon with the sedate bleeps and bloops of Quindar.  Quindar are an electronic music duo comprised of Mikael Jorgensen and James Thomas. 

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Their unique angle is that they’ve been granted access to NASA mission video and audio recordings and their performance is meant to emulate a journey to the moon. 

In theory, I should love these guys. I’ve spent the better part of my career playing music that hews very closely to this artistic territory.  My current band Mission Creep has cosmic ambitions of its own.

The music is very tasteful and the execution is flawless.  There are identifiable melodies and riffs amidst the pulsations, oscillations, and layered beats. It’s just a little too tasteful. 

They were wise to utilize video because they would be insufferably boring to watch without it.  Public Service Broadcasting from the UK are doing the exact same thing conceptually, but are utilizing live instrumentation and subsequently have a more dynamic sound. 

Sadly, King Sunny Ade was held up at the Canadian border and was unable to perform. 

Mass Moca and Wilco are producing a quality festival and I’m genuinely hopeful that it was a financial success. I look forward to next year’s incarnation. 

Solid Sound Day 2: June 27, 2015

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My wife and I decided to check out the Wilco curated Solid Sound festival at Mass Moca this weekend. True their own aesthetic, the common thread unifying all the acts is that each band found different ways to combine American musical tradition and present it in an innovative way.

The festival had a vague feeling of being the East Coast anti-Coachella. In contrast to the image conscious, overpriced West Coast glam of Coachella, Solid Sound was all about reconciling the urbane with the rural. The abstract and adventurous with the gritty and immediate. It was a family oriented festival too, so it wasn’t monopolized by skinny jeans wearing millennials. It managed to be that festival where you were just as likely to find kids playing games on Joe’s Field as you were to find someone who could tell you what their favorite Derek Bailey record was.

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Ryley Walker played a pleasant conjunction of Americana, Krautrock and jazz.  It was occasionally reminiscent of Popul Vuh.  At other times, it devolved into a bland melange which felt facile and uninspired.  Enjoyable enough, but it certainly didn’t set my world on fire.

Luluc were a male/female folk duo who played a low key and melancholy sounding brand of music that seems to lend itself to rainy days and nights of solitude.  The female singer had a voice which vaguely resembled Nico.  Accomplished but meh.

Bill Frisell teamed up with a folk singer/multi-instrumentalist named Sam Amidon. This was perhaps the biggest letdown. Even the brilliance of someone like Frisell could not elevate Amidon’s anemic mewling. He’s talented enough and has a decent voice, but the end result felt detached and academic. Even their excursions into atonal free improvisation were so carefully modulated that they felt more precious than truly exuberant, playful or jarring.

NRBQ injected some much needed life into an afternoon which was a little too heavily weighted towards the soporific.  Their skewed take on R&B was playful and irreverent.  British Invasion style vocal harmonies were mixed with skronk sax solos and swampy New Orleans style funk.  These guys find the common ground between Professor Longhair, Thelonious Monk, and The Beach Boys and make it soar. It manages to be joyous and fun and arty all at once.  Though people often compare Phish with the Dead, it’s apparent to me that they’ve copped a few moves from these guys.

The biggest flop award goes to the insufferably pretentious Jessica Pratt.  Once again, it’s evident that there’s a decent voice and perhaps some songwriting skill that could ripen in time, but the vibe was so fragile and the emotions were too muted. I was reminded of acts like Sharon Van Etten, Waxahatchee, and Marissa Nadler but not as good as any of them. It had a “I’m so consumed by these emotions that I can barely whisper them into this microphone” feeling. And she left the stage without even a “thank you” or an acknowledgement of the audience.  Fuck you too, Jessica.

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The hands down winner of the afternoon was Cibo Matto. Though I believe that Cibo Matto belong to a tradition of NYC punk-funk that traces back to bands like Talking Heads, ESG, and Bush Tetras, their sound incorporates a bedrock of R&B/hip hop and panoply of transcontinental influences which are synthesized so effortlessly, it comes across as its own unique polyglot hybrid.  Their albums have a polished sheen of electronic beats and sounds, but they were backed up by a live rhythm section which brought some welcome brawn to their live sound.  “Blue Train” was one of the most successful marriages of Neu! and Black Sabbath I’ve ever heard.  “Moonchild” revealed them at their R&B sweetest. In “Sunday Part 1” Ms. Hattori and Ms. Honda laid down a flow that stood up against any hip-hop crew you can name. “Bbq” was a blistering punk-funk rave up that gave Primetime a run for their money. They were joyful, innovative and funky; surely the embodiment of everything for which Solid Sound stands.  A+.

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Shabazz Palaces delivered a set of futuristic hip-hop that defied easy comparisons. I was simply at a loss in identifying their antecedents. Their flow was angular but also had harmonized vocals and looped phrases and words.  Without a doubt, one of the most original sounds in the contemporary landscape. Their choreography was cool too.

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I’m just going to admit my loserdom and confess my utter ignorance of Richard Thompson. Yes, I know. What kind of a musician am I to be oblivious to this guy? His set was indeed very good and it’s imminently clear that he’s a prodigious talent. I gave myself a facepalm when I looked up his discography and saw multitude of connections and collaborations with acts I admire. He laid down a raucous set of his unique brand of blues.

Parquet Courts seemed cut from the art punk template that gave rise to the likes of Gang of Four, Pere Ubu and Wire but with a contemporary flair.  It was decent but not original enough to warrant the fanfare. But then again, Spin is apparently in the business of glorifying the mediocre and hackneyed.

And the WTF Award of the day goes to Mac DeMarco. I’ve read the hype. I watched a video once.  I kind of get it, but it’s just not my bag.  He can write a song. He can perform. The program indicates that he’s been compared to John Lennon and Ray Davies, but I’ll be damned if I hear even a fraction of either in him.  There’s a quirky funk/R&B quality to it, but it’s just not something that speaks to me.

Unfortunately, this guy preceded Wilco and since he eroded my patience, we left before their set started.  Sorry, guys.

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Day 3 review coming soon.