Thomas Ligotti – Grimscribe

 

Grimscribe.jpg

Note that I read this collection immediately after Songs of a Dead Dreamer since they were bundled together. It’s possible that many of the negatives come from reading 440 big pages of Ligotti prose. Then again, I survived a longer book with prose more purple and the result was a novel so fantastic, I think it’s required reading for anyone who wants to understand existence and other big ideas.

Ligotti has an odd problem with prose. Generally authors who rely on prose to deliver good fiction do it because their stories are short on content. They need an interesting frames for the story, since ordinary prose will just end up dull. Worse, some of them don’t have any events at all. DeLillo is a good example of this problem. His later work has fantastic prose that goes nowhere.

Ligotti has the potential to become a prose-centric writer, filling pages with beautiful, atmospheric words that only have aesthetic value. Yet the stories demand something else. This brand of horror is both unique and deep. Horror exists in the whole fabric of existence. Anywhere the characters look there is something frightening and hidden.

It’s still effective since it’s rooted in actual philosophy. Just like the previosu collection, these stories express the pessimistic being and what it’s like. What idiots call ‘clinical depression’ is actually seeing the darkness of the world. If you’ve been diagnosed as ‘depressed’, it’s possible your reality is closer to what Ligotti protrays here – unstable, hostile, not really caring about you and beyond your control. The idea of clinical depression is just a way for us to hide from these horrors and pretend they don’t exist.

Some will find this darkness suffocating, but he still has enough set-pieces to explore these darkness. While the running motif is hostile things unseen and generally everything being a mess, it comes in different forms. The last story breaks away from the protagonist-centric narrative and lets a collective ‘we’ to tell the story, creating a sense of suffocating horror that affects everyone. Other stories deal with abandoned places (“The Night School”) and others with forbidden information (“Nethescurial”). Diving the book into sections is a smart idea, since it shows the distinction between these stories. Since horror for Ligotti is everywhere, he has to show it in various places.

Where he fails is that the prose is too monotone. Very few stories deviate from the general mood of depression ‘n’ horror. “The Cocoons” is a short, punchy story where for a change Ligotti slips a joke or two. Taking his style to the direction of absurd and black humor, the result is quite great both as a joke and a narrative. If only he would let himself laugh a bit more. I share his pessimistic views, but nothing wrong with a few chuckles. Elsewhere “Nethescurial”‘s journal of research is a different structure and the closing stories uses the plurarl-first-person narrative that gives it a more engulfing mood.

Other than that, the prose is the same across the stories. It only changes whether the descriptions are more gothic or slightly more personal, but it’s not enough. Worse, this prose is very purple and beautiful. It becomes the center of the story and overpowers the set-pieces. That may be fine when you deal with ever-shifting realities that work like hallucinations, but without variety of tones we keep seeing the same hallucinations

I often forgot the name of the story I was reading and didn’t notice how many stories were behind me. Paragraphs blurred together into one big mess of beautiful, horrifying reality. At some point it become self-parodic not becuase it degenerated in quality but because my head was bludgeoned with this prose. You can only read sentences about how everything looked like human organs and that there are things in the shadows before you get tired. Separate the stories from the collection and I’m sure they’ll be great. Read them together and they get blurred like the reality inside them. I don’t want to think what “Last Feast” would read like if it were in the middle.

Such reliance on prose that dominates the book, suffocates everything and leaves nothing but itself means it has to be good. Else, the collection will fall apart. Thankfully it’s just as distinctive as the previous collection, if not better. In the previous collection the prose sometimes meandered to generic territory. It had a unique tone that overlayed standard prose. Here, Ligotti goes full-on dark psychedelia. Often it reads like creepy poetry and makes you wonder why he doesn’t try his hand at it, since you can craft great pieces out of here. Quotables lines are everywhere and anyone who needs lyrics for his depressed kind-of Gothic Country should find enough lines here.

In retrospect, there were many highlights and the stories are more sprawling and developed. “The Last Feast” is the best story here, mainly because its story involves more concrete material rather than hallucination-esque visions. It also dives headfirst into Ligotti’s antinatalism. “The Cocoons” offers a bit of much needed humor and is his personal attack on the profession of medicine. While it’s not an in-depth critique (unlike “The Last Feast”), its purpose was to be pulpy and punchy anyway. “The Dreaming in Nortown” is the scariest of the bunch. Most stories here feature some kind of power balance, even if the powerful side is just a supernatural force. In that story there is really no order, just following an insane man in his trip through town that eventually leads nowhere.

It’s still an excellent collection and anyone who understands horror must read this. Someday I’ll re-read it without Songs being fresh in my mind and maybe the highlights, the little details and something deeper will rise. Ligotti remains a fantastic prose stylist who understands his genre and has a unique voice. Even at his worst there is something to learn here.

3.5 shadows out of 5

Advertisements

Fuck That Noise: Bruno Mars, The Weeknd and Ballads By Macho Men

Bruno Mars’ single, “24K Magic”, is badass. Mars doesn’t so much sing as he speaks throughout the song with every line meaning the same thing. He’s cool, he knows how to party and has women. The latter is especially important, because we live in a new feminist world where attractive guys are still allowed to flaunt their women like dollar bills. He’s so confident that, really, why attempt a chorus? The first spin of “24K Magic” makes it sound more like a spoken word track over a Synthfunk backing rather than an actual Pop song. It’s one of the year’s best songs.

It’s also a game-changer for Bruno Mars. From here on out, the only reaction to his ballads is ‘fuck that noise’.

MTQxNzI3MzExMDgxNzc2NjQ4

The Weeknd poses for his philosophy book

Music is acting. I don’t care who you are in real life. What’s important in music is that the character you play in your music is believable, and will somehow makes sense when we connect the songs. Eminem is unconvincing because he’s at one point mocking Pop music, whines about people not liking him and then makes a song with Sia. Ian Watkins is an all-around terrible person, but the sound of “Rooftops” didn’t change just because we discovered he’s a pedophile.

Balancing bragging tracks with ballads is tough. We all experienced the highs and lows of life, but you need to connect these two. If your character is sad, I need to believe this sadness is real and is relevant despite all the parties you had. It’s especially tough to come off as vulnerable or sensitive when a second ago you bragged how much sex you have and how all the women want you.

Screen shot 2016-09-29 at 09.58.34

I don’t think this is what you do with crosses

The Weeknd also released a song with a similar vibe, but “Starboy” is vastly different in demeanor and content. The Weekend also brags about having a lot of sex and a lot of money. He explicitly says he has a girlfriend and a mistress, both of which are out of your league. Along with bragging about cars, it’s obvious Weeknd’s life is overall quite kickin’.

What’s different is the context. Bruno Mars is carefree and happy in “24K Magic”, and only brags about how good his life is. You can understand nothing else about Mars, other than that he’s probably an inconsiderate asshole outside having fun. A line like “Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends” promises great sex and treating you like dirt. Weeknd, however, is so dark that it’s obvious there’s something wrong with him despie how much he parties.

The Weeknd starts off his song with “I want to put you in the worst mood”. Already, this song is more than just bragging. He wants you to feel bad, he needs others’ jealousy so he could feel good about himself. Instead of the social butterfly who’s inconsiderate, Weeknd’s song is upfront about how pain exists in our world (and he wants to cause it). When he proceeeds in the verse to brag, it’s always about how his good things should make you feel bad. The line about using drugs to kill any pain makes it obvious that Weeknd does have a shitty day and needs to do things about him. The line “We don’t pray for love, we just pray for cars” is quite nihilistic, expressing a dark worldview of retreating to materialism.

Musically, “24K Magic” is a straight-up banger with funky backing, a great bassline and a synth that farts all the way. It only contains happiness. “Starboy”‘s drums are colder and jittery. It’s also more sparse, almost sounding like Joy Division tweeked for the dance floor. By the time drums kick in the chorus, they’re aggressive. You can party to it – it’s even recommended since it’s also brilliant – but it’s not happy-go-lucky and it’s more suitable to planning revenge than celebrating your anniversary with a significant other.

bruno-mars-24k

Ain’t no fun if the guys don’t get naked too

These differences make me react so differently to the ballads. When Bruno Mars put out “Versace on the Floor”, I could think in terms of ‘fuck that noise’ and ‘are women still fooled by this?’. A little before, Mars was a social butterfly who didn’t care about anyone. He was the person you invited to the party, but once everyone had too much to drink and talk about life he gets kicked out. He’s the guy who never holds a conversation but only screams jokes If Mars will be accused of raping a 16-year-old, I wouldn’t be surprised. Okay, I wouldn’t be surprised over any musician, but Mars is definitely in the top of musicians who have the highest chances of doing it.

I can’t connect the two. If “24K Magic” was less aggressive, more akin to Radical Something’s anthems of summer then it’d be different. Mars’ cocky aggression is integral to why his ballads doesn’t work. The line “Bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends” paint a picture of a guy women love so much he can afford to treat them bad without realizing it. Just ask Dessa. Neve in “24K Magic” do we hear a person who’s fun to be around, but a person who has a lot fun. It’s the type of person who fucks women instead of having sex.

When the Weeknd shows up his vulnerable side, it’s believable. He takes the dark side of “Starboy” and expands it, or takes the small cracks and zooms into them. “All I Know” is believable because it’s a direct contrast to “Starboy” instead of being unrelated. It was what he tried to hide so hard by bragging about praying for cars. “Secrets” is the flipside, with Weeknd being the man pining after the woman who has all the guys.

x720-zFW

About as romantic as quoting Gamergate supporters.

They also sing their ballads differently. “Versace on the Floor” is full of vocal acrobatics. Vocal acrobatics are impressive and a great way to terminate your acting abilities. Since they point out you’re actually a singer, you forget about the mood and the content. “Versace” is less about having time with a girl and more about seducing a girl using the promise of romance just to ditch her (Ed Sheeran’s character does it all the time). Shifting singing styles so radically only serves to show you were acting all along. Weeknd always sings as Starboy and never tries to show off. Imagine “Belong to the World” if Weeknd sang it like Mars. Actually, it would probably still be good because of the lyrics.

Perhaps it has something to do with me being a guy, but then again I consider Lostprophets’ “Rooftops” to be a highlight in music history. That song was made by your worst nightmare, a guy so sexy he could do anything he want and have women supporting him. Watkins never did Mars’ vocal acrobatics there. When it explodes, he screams more than sings and that’s crucial. Of course, good actors are also the best at sexual abuse, so maybe Mars isn’t that in person after all. I don’t know. All I know is that, as an actor, he’s horrible. Give me songs like “24k Magic” any day, because, from him, songs like “Just the Way You Are” makes me worry what happens backstage. I shouldn’t, since there’s always a good reason to worry about things happening backstage.

If that’s not enough, listen to “Versace” while watching the video for “24K Magic”. Tell me how different he is from how Nice Guys(tm) describe your boyfriend.

Slipknot – All Hope is Gone

allhope
Normalization is the worst thing that could happen to a Nu Metal band. Back in the 00’s everyone whined about bands ‘selling out’, but they were concerned with the band’s image rather than quality. If a band decided to sing more and perhaps tone down the noise, it was wrong because it was accessible. Whether it lead to good music or not didn’t matter. So all the critics going hammer missed out about bands dropping elements, turning their vision more and more narrow.

The 00’s were surreal times, and pretty awesome. You could listen to Lostprophets without feeling guilt and overly serious EDM didn’t dominate the airwaves. A wave of loud rock bands rose, deciding that genres are silly. You can have funky rhythms, rapping, Dream Pop atmospherics and coherent screaming – sometimes all in the same songs. They weren’t afraid of being danceable or loud or poppy. “Eyeless”, a full-on rant with Jungle elements was considered unoriginal. It was unoriginal compared to, what, exactly? Long guitar solos and lyrics against Jesus Christ?

When Disturbed and Papa Roach dropped their quirks, it was a bummer but not too much. They weren’t too good at working with them anyway. Slipknot, however, are the band that suffered the most from the normalization. They didn’t distill their quircks into an accessible sound that still had shades of a unique personality. Korn still sounded out-of-place when they made “Make Me Bad”. Slipknot obviously read all the reviews that whined about how Machine Head does something other than an overly serious Pantera and decided, ‘hey, we’ll do it too!’

Why would anyone want to listen to “Gemataria” over “Eyeless”? What is it about the former that makes it more fun, more aggressive, catchier, more creative, more anything positive? Slipknot was so bizarre in their noisy rants that were somehow friendly to Rock radio. You would expect that the music would still have a shed of personality. If Slipknot makes ordinary music, it should at least sound like they’re playing the genre on their own terms.

Instead, it sounds like a creative band trying desperately not to come off weird, like a dude trying to hide his Slipknot shirt underneath a suit & tie. “All Hope is Gone”‘s chorus breaks into a Hip-Hop beat, and the chorus can be adapted into a Hip-Hop song. Since Corey displayed good rapping skills, nothing prevents him from breaking into a full Rap verse. It would be bolder to end the album with pure Breaks and rapping. The groove that drives it comes less from Pantera, and sounds more like the Funk-influenced ending of Prong’s “Cut-Rate”.

Elsewhere, “This Cold Black” and “Wherein Lies Continue” are more embarrassing examples of how hard Slipknot are trying to fit in. The latter has a slow groove that’s not danceable. It’s only ‘heavy’ in the sense that it’s not pleasant to the ear if your musical vocabulary consists of Backstreet Boys and the one Michael Jackson everyone knows. Imagine a Groove Metal track you’re supposed to brood too, rather than dance to. If you can imagine that, you need not ever listen to the song – or the whole album, actually. You’ll also desperately need something to make you forget this image. The former of these two track is the banding slamming their instruments seriously. There are no fun, catchy lyrics like ‘fuck you all, fuck this world’.

Really, people, why must anger be serious and dramatic? Vulgarity is informal. It mixed so well with Nu Metal because it gave it a lightness, a bouncy fun aspect to the music. Vulgarity makes the anger less serious, and the tracks more akin to venting than making grand philosophical statements involving fear and trembling. “Gematria” is limp and anemic, the band slams but can’t come up with anything truly hard-hitting. Spitting poetry about America being a killing name is so hilarious over these theatrical, brooding metal riffs. “We’ll burn your cities down” is the one highlight of the track, because Slipknot used to sound like they want to burn cities down for the fuck of it. Corey sounds more serious than angry, and you’re only allowed to be serious with Nu Metal if you’re weird enough.

Slipknot could’ve have justified their new, ‘no fun allowed’ approach since they were one of the few Nu Metal bands with an artistic bent. Vol. 3 didn’t suffer from it. In fact, it justified it by having fragile atmospheric ballads like “Danger – Keep Away” and weird noises during party tracks like “Pulse of the Maggots”. Nothing here is as brave and progressive like “Three Nil”, a track that was as angry as it was experimental as in was contemplative. It sees Slipknot utterly unrestrained by either Pop or Metal structures. Corey never once touches the conversational tone of that song, and no song has its unique, ever-changing structure except “Gehenna”. It’s an interesting song, at least, which counts for something in an album so lacking in spark or imagination.

The highlights are only “Psychosocial”, “Vendetta” and “Butcher’s Hook”. They don’t reach the heights of Slipknot’s older material except for “Psychosocial” – a fist-pumping stomper that tries to put a serious face, but still cares more about the party than grand statements. The other songs see Slipknot letting loose for a while. “Vendetta” may seem normal, but not because Slipknot are trying to be normal, but because they felt like kicking a straight-forward rocker. “Butcher’s Hook” sounds more like something out of Vol. 3 and has some fantastic atmospherics. DJ Starscream has always an important rib of Slipknot. His odd sounds made them sound more dangerous than any metal riff can, and the intro to the song is more intense than any Thrash Metal record.

Slipknot deserve so much more. While at first they seemed like they were Nu Metal’s most brutal band, they were also one of its weirdest. Even at their worst they sounded off-kilter and actually dangerous, like a band who can’t contain themselves. On this album Slipknot restrain themselves, and if this doesn’t sound awful to you consider this. “Danger – Keep Away” is an extremely soft ballad where the band jumps into its idea with full conviction. It has no build-up, just pure ambiance and creepy lyrics. Slipknot are unrestrained even in their soft songs. Nothing here sounds as dangerous or intense or authentic as that one. Here, they try to please those morons who whine about Machine Head being unoriginal since they expanded their sound. Such people you don’t want at your party, and you don’t want this album either (except “Psychosocial”, that’s Prong-level of party starting).

2 butchers out of 5

Throbbing Gristle – DOA: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle

throbbing gristle.jpg
Is there a more obnoxious fanbase than Throbbing Gristle’s? Industrial is an exciting genre. It encompasses so many musical elements. Some bands opt for noise. Others for danceable rhythms. Many found ways to incorporate melody and beauty. It even spawned a genre of Pop music that sadly never saw mainstream success. So while we’re discussing really cool bands like Coil or Nine Inch Nails or VNV Nation or Skinny Puppy, along comes that dude. He informs us how uncool we are, how we’re not listening to ‘real Industrial’ and how we should listen to some Throbbing Gristle. Sometimes they’ll go as far as tell you SPK and Coil aren’t part of the genre.

That’s hippy-dippy bollocks, of course. Their reasoning is that Gristle are Industrial because their record label is called ‘Industrial’. I guess that means Skylar Grey’s first album should also be classified as Industrial since it was released in a label called Machine Shop. That’s quite an Industrial name for a record label. Someone should’ve told them that in art, what it is means more than what people say it is. When an author says a character is ‘smart’, it doesn’t matter unless the character acts smart. So it doesn’t matter if Throbbing Gristle were on a record label called ‘Industrial’ but it matters what it sounds like.

I also don’t buy the ‘historically important’ angle. Sure, some of it sounds like demo tapes made by Coil when they were 14 and less intelligent. This record came a little before Einsturzende, SPK and Coil released their debuts. Perhaps they all heard “Hit By a Rock” and a few of Gristle’s previous dicking about and decided to make a record of their own. If it’s true, then the genre grew a lot in a year. SPK demolished the Noise genre with the fantastic Information Overload Unit. Einsturzende’s debut album was primitive, but in the long atmospheric title-track they already showed more sense of purpose than anything here.

I doubt Gristle were that much of an inspiration. What defines the genre isn’t mere noise of experimentation. Industrial music is one of the few genres where an overall aesthetic, not specific musical elements define it. It’s a genre obsessed with humanity’s doom, with hostile machinery, evil sexuality and violence. That’s why even if SPK had no melodies in their early work, their music could be tied directly to Nine Inch Nails. They had an atmosphere to aim for. This aesthetic is also why the genre can contain the Glam Rock of Marilyn Manson and the Synthpop of VNV Nation. It’s also why Depeche Mode would sound comfortably in a compilation.

This sense of purpose is exactly what Gristle lacks here. They’re not untalented. For an album full of avant-garde dicking about, it’s impressive. They can conjure up interesting sounds and create pieces that resemble songs. “Hit By a Rock”, “AB7A” and “Dead on Arrival” are all distinctive in their own way. They also end the song right before it exhausts its ideas. That’s why the short “I.B.M.” is a lot of fun. It’s two and a half minute of computer noise, but for a change it’s silly without the need to shock. More Noise music should be this playful.

The rest, however, is a collection of Coil demos in search of a purpose. Gristle are more concerned with seeming ‘experimental’, so anything that can make it pleasant or catchy is thrown out the window. Some tracks contain vocals, but it’s mindless screaming you can’t follow. The bonus track “We Hate You” sums it up perfectly. You can’t join the anger because the noise buries the vocals. The noise isn’t prominent, too. It doesn’t roar at you but is just stuck there while P-Orridge’s voice are barely audible. The atmosphere isn’t menacing since there’s nothing but a little static.

It’s not minimalist because too many noises exist for the sake of having weird noises. The title-track has nice, actually Industrial-sounding percussion but there are funny noises every second which don’t add anything. They don’t sound bizarre but the sort of thing a person trying hard not to be Pop would come up with. The proof the band was considered with image is “Blood on the Floor”. The melody is okay and there’s something distressing about P-Orridge’s performance. It’s not ‘proper’ singing, but he rescues a melody and sound convincing enough. Even the static noise overlay is a good decision, yet it sounds so low budget. It begs to have a proper ending, not just fade out. The static noise should be louder, more layered and more punishing. I hear about ‘noise terrorism’ and ‘scary’ when it comes to this band, but they never come up with something truly unsettling. The band is satisfied with stopping with ‘make it noisy’. What a shame when “E-Coli” and “Walls of Sound” sound like an inferior but still great SPK..

Perhaps you should’ve been there when it started. It is impressive this was released only in 1978. This was right around the time the first Hip-Hop records were released. Gristle ‘created’ Industrial music before Grandmaster Flash’s first record. Still, all it did was inspire the pioneers. There’s some noise, there’s some machinery but it doesn’t have the artistry of Coil or the menace of SPK. Every other Industrial artists, in a way, borrows from them (or from Skinny Puppy). Throbbing Gristle laid the roots of Industrial, but didn’t actually establish it. Still, it’s worth a spin or two just to see what ideas people come up with but that’s it. Invest the rest of your time in Information Overload Unit.

2 gristle that are throbbing out of 5

Ergo Proxy

ergoproxy
If to be great is to be misunderstood, then Ergo Proxy is truly one of the greatest anime ever. It’s second only to Future Diary in how everyone misinterprets it, both the fans and the haters. Some of what you heard is true. It’s experimental, bizarre and sometimes a little too vague. Yet no one talks about how it’s not experimental in the conventional, silly way. No one mentions how human the story is, or how traditional it is at the same time.

Somewhere at its heart is a very traditional story. It starts off with a mystery and later becomes a journey of self-discovery, a wild adventure with stand-alone set-pieces. Being experimental isn’t denying common structures but creating your own. The weirdest anime have a familiar side. They distort common tropes and structures and build something new out of them.

vlcsnap-2016-09-15-13h14m43s247

The anime makes its intentions very clear at the beginning. You know this is a deep sci-fi story because there’s no info dumps. Techno-babble is common in sci-fi and its antithesis. Sci-fi is about exploring the implications of technologies and possibles futures. How exactly a technology will work is work for scientists. The purpose of storytellers is to try to predict how it will effect us psychologically and philosophically.

Human relying on intelligent robots is familiar, but the anime is more focused on what it means. Machines are just advanced tools. Humanoid robots aren’t meant to be actual humans, but serve various factions. How far does a tool advance before it stops being a tool? The companion model is important. Tools are supposed to solve technical problems – they help us build, repair and cook. Yet here’s a tool whose purpose is to address a psychological problem.

vlcsnap-2016-09-15-13h16m17s236

Psychological problems are bigger than technical problems. The toaster is either broken or fixed and, in general, doesn’t have a will of its own. Psychology leads to wants and needs. Psychology is dynamic and is constantly changing. A tool that cannot solve a psychological problem without having long-term effects.

Intelligence is also important for the development of psychology. The more complex the problem, the more complex the tool has to be. Eventually we develop intelligent tools, but intelligence leads to psychology, to asking questions. But the AutoReives don’t have to ask too much. The main philosophical question – why live? – has been answered inside their programming. The designer of the tool decides its purpose. It designs the tool for a specific problem.

In a way, this is the argument for the non-existence of a God or for an indifferent God. Human beings don’t have their reasons of existence written in their code. The only humans who do are humans born in artificial wombs. Vincent is the prime example of the Absurd Man. If you’re confused over what happens to him, that’s okay. He’s just as confused like most people are. Unlike the AutoReives, he has to put conscious effort, to break out of his comfort zones to find meaning.

vlcsnap-2016-09-15-13h16m39s154

Even the pre-programmed people aren’t safe from the nature of reality. Intelligence is only useful if it’s able to develop on its own. An intelligent tool has to continue to learn, or else it’s not intelligent at all and can’t deal with the most complex problems. Either reality shifts and make us question our purpose, or our intelligence develops and leads us to these questions. That’s what the Cogito virus really is, isn’t it? That’s Pino’s arc. She starts off pre-programmed with a clear purpose. As she gathers experience, she develops a worldview, wants and needs. The line isn’t between men and machine. It’s between men and tools.

Ergo Proxy is mostly about the search for meaning. It’s appropriate because the anime sometimes can’t hold on to that. The conclusion it reaches is a familiar one, but I don’t think anyone has yet to supply a better answer. We cannot stop the search. Romdeau may be sealed and ordered, but the Cogito virus still exploded. People still wondered what’s going on, and Lil Mayar found a purpose of her own besides merely existing. Human connection is also important. When everything falls, there are still people to hold on to.

vlcsnap-2016-09-15-13h16m35s154

The anime mirrors the characters and humanity in general. It bumbles from style to style. The atmosphere is fairly consistent with the anime mainly borrowing from genres rather than jumping into them. Still, the theme is either pushed too upfront with name-dropping of philosophers or hidden in episodes that don’t relate to this. That’s why being aware of traditional storytelling is useful. Merely rejecting them is silly when they’re a useful crutch.

In general, falling back on tropes is a bad sign. Cliches without verve are offensively boring. Ergo Proxy‘s case isn’t giving up. Rather, it focuses on having a surface as attractive as its depths. There’s no reason to cover up a deep story with a boring surface, anyway. The mystery and the adventure are just as intriguing. While the tonal shifts aren’t huge with few moments of lighthearted fun, there’s variety in the set-pieces. It especially improves when the anime slides into its adventure arc. The set-pieces are varied and often bizarre. Episodes are told in different ways, and are often self-contained.

vlcsnap-2016-09-15-13h17m04s221

Sometimes it feels like you missed episodes, but only because the focus is on making the episode an individual creation. The connection to past events is made later. The focus is more on the story. That’s another thing people miss about the anime. For all its talk about philosophy, Ergo Proxy isn’t a collection of weird images and stoic phases. It’s heavy on storytelling, on characters interacting and things happening. It rarely, if ever, stops to inform the audience on its philosophical nature. When the AutoReives cry for their ‘raison d’etre’, it’s more because this term is common in the world rather than trying to impress the viewer with jargon.

Its only flaw is its messy nature, but that’s forgivable. Any time that explores its themes so well, that plays both the philosophical angle and the storytelling angle is bound to be messy. It’s not even lying big themes on a traditional story. Ergo Proxy constantly breaks, constantly bounces from one thing to the next. The verve is engrossing, but the anime is also confused. Since it’s not a complete experimental work and not an adventure with psychological portait, it should be in the middle. A anime that’s at once traditional and experimental should be brilliant, but that’s too much to ask for. Still, it doesn’t matter if Icarus burned when he flew to the sun. The wings still worked.

There’s no reason to pass off on this anime. It’s bizarre, messy, intelligent, emotionally engrossing and accessible. It’s far-out, so I can imagine plenty disliking this. Still, this isn’t the impenetrable Texhnolyze or Serial Experiments Lain. In fact, its awareness of traditions actually makes it more bizarre. It’s truly unusual in a way that few fictional works are. If I have to present anime to an outsider, this is one of the first I’ll think of.

4.5 autoraves out of 5

Texhnolyze

texhnolyze
To call Texhnolyze one of the most predictable stories is an understatement. The only expectation it defied was the exepctation to be worthwhile. Other than that, this is your typical artsy anime. It beats you over the head with how artsy it is, using techniques that distinguishes it from mainstream anime. None of these techniques distinguishes it from the many ‘artistic’ stories out there. It often looks like an immature, more angsty little brother of Blade Runner or Eraserhead.

Is there a more redundant way to inform your audience that your story is serious by having grey colours and serious characters? Nolan used the same technique in Inception and made a complete fool of himself. He was so focused on being serious that hsi dreams looked like Michael Bay directed them.

vlcsnap-2016-01-08-13h11m23s174

The anime doesn’t follow an idea of its own. The directors behind it watched a bunch of art house films, noticed the lack of dialogue in Blade Runner and decided that this is the reason it got the acclaim.

Being serious isn’t going to make me take your story seriously. Halfway through the series and all the characters still act the same. They all present the same variation of the stoic, apathetic characters. Some are less stoic than others, but that’s like saying there’s a major difference between New York Hardcore and Beatdown Hardcore. They more similar than they are different.

After 20 episodes, the 100th shot of Ichise’s indifferent, emotionless face is hilarious. It reeks of trying too hard. Is the life of people in harsh environments like this? Did the Jews in the Holocaust or the fighters in Sudan had time to just stare off into the distant with a stoic face?

vlcsnap-2016-01-22-01h42m39s187

Think of any photograph of a war-torned or poverty-stricked place. Do the people have the privilege of being stoic? No. These photographs are harrowing because they’re full of pain and suffering. These are people who want life and struggle to survive, to find some kind of joy in it. Stories from Holocaust survivors are full of these moments. They’re not stoic but swinging from one extreme painful moment to a small relief of happiness.

The only place that actually is monotonous is your office job and suburban job. Texhnolyze is full of angst, the kind your suburuban dad gets after 20 years in the same job. It’s your boring monotonous pessimism you hear from a teenager when every day is exactly the same.

Actually, comparing this to teen angst is a compliment. Teen angst is an existensial storm of ups and downs, like that Nine Inch Nails album. It can be silly but it’s exciting. Texhnolyze is macho angst. It’s the same thing that fuels Game of Thrones and Cormac McCarthy novels. The old macho fantasy of men in suits not expressing emotions is a big hit now and is often confused with depth. The only surprise is that Texhnolyze doesn’t have graphic sexual abuse (Although we do get a sexy doctor).

You cannot horrify the audience by constantly showing suffering. Humans adapt. When feel something too much we get used to it and our perspective changes. Texhnolyze has the same emotional tone throughout the series.

vlcsnap-2016-01-04-22h48m27s198

Bleakness and grimdarkness cannot be leading tones. They’re too narrow. You can use them in certain scenes but unless you’re doing something especially unusual there’s nothing there. You need to contrast it with something. People don’t suffer because they don’t have something. People suffer because they don’t have something that they want.

There are plenty of tragic and dark works out there, but they’re effective because they’re aware suffering doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You don’t have to show a moment of joy. Just showing it can exist in your world is enough. I only have to skim over Serial Experiments Lain to find a shot of girls laughing in bright colors. This is enough to inform me that in the world of Lain, people can be happy.

Some moments have potential to offer contrast, but the mood suffocates it. A sex scene is in dark colors and full of dread. We see a party, but there breaks Hal’s heart. It is a flat line, which means it’s both shallow and dead.

If Texhnolyze found a unique way to express the grimdark cliche, I would have forgiven it. If it would have gone full retard in the Techno-Industrial depart it would be a little fun. While the soundtrack is nice, the scenery never reminded me of Front Line Assembly. The decay gets more focus than the mechanical nature. The focus is on the mood, rather on something that will create the mood. This is no City of Rapture.

The most radical switch from this mood is the action scenes. The anime joins BTOOOM! and Deadman Wonderland by bathing in blood and faces distorting in pain. The show already established a cold, stoic tone. When these scenes kick in, the violence isn’t harrowing. The scenes don’t reveal any pain because we were already beaten the head with pain before. So all they do is take the suffering one step further, showing it more explicitly. Someone should’ve told them that what makes pictures from the Holocaust or Unit 731 harrowing is because we know these are real people. The people in Texhnolyze aren’t real.

vlcsnap-2016-01-22-01h41m39s128

There’s a revealing interview with the creators. They said these action scenes were a response to the Shounen Jump style violence, where characters walk away bleeding. The creators wanted to express ‘pain’. If they had any understanding of action films, they would have known they are not about pain. Action anime is about aestheticized violence, about making violence look really cool.

Asking what the creators wanted to communicate, they said they don’t have any idea. They admit things changed as they series went along and that’s it. He hoped that the viewer would feel some kind of empathy or that they will think ‘this might mean this’. Does that sound like a work which involved deep thought?

I did not want the creator to analyze his own work. Still, I expected them to have some kind of direction. Lynch saying he sees absurditiy and weirdness all around him is enough to give you some idea what his films try to express.

If Texhnolyze was a mess of ideas it would still be amusing. If it jumped off from one idea to the next it would at least be there. Not knowing what it’s about, instead, makes for an anime that never builds towards anything. The tone never changes, since they never know what it was about in the beginning so they had no foundation to build upon. It ends with a big battle and an antagonist who’s a rip-off on Fallout‘s The Master only without the charisma, humor and the depth.

I engaged in a long debate with hopes of finding value. While the person raised a lot of valid points and there is something here about the nature of existence and ‘being human’, it’s not conveyed. I engaged in that debate while watching the last episodes. They’re an improvement and the above-ground is a great idea, but the stoic mood and boring violence overpowered any depth there could have been. You don’t cover depth and ideas with a boring story. Your cover needs to serve the ideas, not obscure them.

vlcsnap-2015-12-29-20h58m55s42

Some also told me the characters are not the point, but if this is about humanity they must be the point. You cannot have a story about human nature or existence without characters. Existence and stories don’t exist outside of characters. You can have a story without many things. You can have a story that’s just an inner monologue, but without characters the only thing you can write about is asteroids hitting planets and blowing shit up. That’s just a Michael Bay story without women.

Perhaps I’m an idiot. Perhaps there is something deeper beneath the 100 shots of apathetic and ultra macho faces. Perhaps everyone just jumps on the bandwagon of grimdark and think that if the anime has a serious tone, then we must take it seriously. I’ve experienced plenty of strange and ‘artistic’ stories. Most of them were weird enough to be interesting for a while even if they failed. Texhnolyze is a predictably artsy anime that can’t escape its trap. Even if it says something about existence or optimism, in the end it wants too much to be serious and everything is dead.

1.5 stoic faces out of 5

Attack on Titan (Shinkegi No Kyojin)

47347l

We have a weird obsession with our own self-destruction. It’s not just stories about how we’re destroying the Earth. We are attracted to the sight of humans being butchered, cut up and eaten. The arts have constantly provided a safe place for people to view these things, knowing these people aren’t really dying.

As profound and deep as it sounds, it also gave rise to exploitation films. Sometimes, they get a budget and we get something like the Saw series. The worst offenders are those that use the grim’n’dark atmosphere of violence to shock. The audience for Saw is there for the visual spectacle, but many people are still sure grimdarkness is a sign of depth and maturity. Just look at all those crappy FPS games with monochromatic tough guys, or that very popular fantasy series that’s all about who will be the king.

The premise sure sounds like it will join these ranks. Anime is full of overblown violence, especially in shows with a very serious tone. There’s also a realistic art style to boot. After a few episodes, though, you notice you spent more time with the characters rather than looking at titans eating humans.

Attack on Titan never feels like it’s even trying to join the rank of shlock grimdarkness. This is a very humane story, one where the characters are much more important than what happens next. It doesn’t even sink into exploitating their suffering. It’s far more excited with the variety of humans to linger on one detail.

Calling Attack on Titan a story that loves humans sound silly. Heads are being chopped off and there are a lot of assholes around, but that’s the strength. It looks at humanity’s worst aspects, admits their exist and still refuses to give up on it.

In fact, it’s a criticism of such misanthropy. The titans are distorted versions of us. That’s a visualization of how misanthropes see humanity – as senseless animals just bent on destruction. Yet the whole purpose the titans exist, just to chop humans to destroy them all is the logical end of misanthropy.

It’s not a caricature, though. The creators understand why misanthropes exist in the first place. Cruelty is everywhere. Sometimes it’s cliches about how the elite only cares about themselves (Thankfully, the series doesn’t linger on that too much). Sometimes we get a more interesting look at how assholes are born. A military police officer can’t hear the explanation of how all these destruction is going to get humanity anywhere. Right now his own world is under attack. We care more about our home environment than we do about humanity as a whole.

Caring about the whole isn’t easy. The series presents two ways of doing it. Either persevere as if nothing is happening and hide behind the walls, or make great sacrifices, risk losing everything but also gain everything.

It’s not an easy choice at all. The ideal situation is that Erwin’s plans will work, but there’s no guarantee it will. We’re always encouraged to take risks, but the reason it’s a risk in the first place is because of the possibility of failure.

Failure is an ever-looming presence in Attack on Titan. Plans never go as expected, and sometimes even Erwin isn’t sure where to go from that failure. The series asks whether the risk is worth taking even if the plan fails. It doesn’t present a simplistic, complete failure. The characters always gain something from the risks they take. A complete loss is easy to write and doesn’t leave much to explore. Rather, it asks whether what was gained was worth the exchange.

While this focus on dealing with failure is admirable (and possibly pretty rare in these types of anime), it sometimes become repetitive. The series never sinks into milking its tragedy. We see titans eating humans, but just enough to understand the horror of it all. The camera never lingers on dead bodies and titans chewing on a human. We still get an overpowered enemy for the ending, though.

The last part of the series goes in a different direction. It’s a nice risk, but I’m still not sure whether it was worth it. It’s an extended action sequence that’s well-animated and exciting, but can feel too out-of-place. Up until then the series was concerned with the characters. We got various worldviews and personalities and saw them interact. The training arc is especially great. The action sequence relies on more on what will happen next than on the characers’ personalities.

There are still character moments there. A moment of banter between the elite soldier defines what makes this series so engrossing. The way each of them talks is modified by their personality (Oluo’s narcissism, Petra’s empathy). The action is also entertaining enough. It’s well-animated, unique to the series rather than just generic sword swinging and uses extended, moving shots. There is a kinetic energy to it. The camera moves as the soldiers fly with their gear, and that transmits this motion more effective.

Too bad their enemy is pretty dull. It borders on invincible. Fighting an all-powerful enemy can be used well, but only psychologically (As in Harlan Ellison’s story about mouths and screaming). An action scene against an enemy who can block each attack quickly becomes repetitive. There’s a reason why the last fighting scene in Medabots is so short.

The enemy is given the occasional downfall and these are the most intense moments. Anytime it breaks out and finds a way around there’s a sense of been-there-done-that. At that point, it just felt like the creators was dragging the series on and piling on tragedies.

Up until then, it constantly kept moving forward and didn’t linger on unnecessary details. The reason we get these time skips because we don’t need 40 episodes of Eren’s childhood to understand him. We’re given enough to understand and then it moves on. Why linger on the least exciting section? Maybe they’re trying to appeal to an audience who’s in it for the action. At least they gave them unique action scenes.

Overpowered enemy means the ending isn’t very different than what happened a few episodes before it. The lack of conclusion isn’t the big problem. The manga keeps going, and the series doesn’t put all its money on the Big Conclusion anyway. The conclusion is not satisfying enough, but it doesn’t negate all that came before. The problem is that not enough changed when it ends. Change is only hinted at, but the enemy hasn’t been really defeated and not a lot of progress was made. I did not want all points wrapped up, but I wanted a lesson learned. A good ending is one that wraps up the themes, not plot points.

The series also gets credit for changing my view on realistic character design. My previous experience was with Monster, where everyone looked like real people and no one looked interesting or unique. Animation gives total control. The animators decide everything – the size of the head, the shape of the eyes, the color of the hair.

There is supposed to be a good reason to include a detail. If not, it’s just meaningless fluff with no purpose. That’s why, in cartoons, the characters tend to have ridiculous designs that are either interesting to look at or to inform us about the character’s personality. Attack on Titan has this attention to detail. The facial expression especially have a lot of work put into them. Levi has small, narrow eyes that reflect his world that’s nothing but killing titans. Eren’s eyes are wide but muscular, which fit with his idealism, extremist views and desire to go to the world outside. Petra also has such wide eyes, but they’re softer. She’s more emphatic than anyone around here.

It also avoids the shounen trap and let women look like women. A lot of shounen anime give the women breasts, but not actual female beauty. It’s no attempt to subvert gender norms. The femininity is removed without something to replace it. Here, though, women are allowed to look like women whether they’re mother figures (Petra), hardened warriors (Annie, Mikasa) or wild eccentrics (Hanji, Sasha).

It’s a good moment to say that the series avoids all cliches of misogyny and feminism in its representation of women. The women in Attack on Titan are allowed to be human beings, not walking pin-up posters or bland strong women. They have characters and personalities just like the guys. They do drop the ball Mikasa, but that’s less because they try to make her strong and more because they forgot to give her a personality. Why do we waste our time, asking whether a sexy schoolgirl with a one armed scissor is feminist when this one gets it all right?

Despite the small flaws, Attack on Titan is well worth the fame. It’s good to easy it became so big. There are at times when it feels unstoppable, like it’s hell-bent on becoming the best anime ever. Almost every scene has purpose and every dialogue exchange contributes to the characters and worlds. Even when it becomes just an extended action sequence, it’s fantastic. That’s how good it is.

4 titans out of 5