Swollen Members – Dagger Mouth

DAGGER

This can’t help but feel like an apology for their previous, atrocious album. For an album that’s so apologetic it also sounds like a roaring comeback that threatens to be their defining work. It’s an odd contrast that doesn’t really make sense and makes you wonder what Armed to the Teeth was all about anyway if they’re doing the complete opposite here.

Swollen Members are about classic Boom Bap only with more charisma. Instead of mumbling about New York and other such cliches, they flirt with horrorcore while never becoming as obnoxious as Necro. This versatility let them either slide completely into the genre, take it into more personal places (“Bad Dreams”) or to just expand beyond the typical boundaries of Hip-Hop. That’s why Black Magic is so good and why it received such a lukewarm reception. Before Kanye West’s new found fame, the only way to make an acclaimed album was to imitate crappy New York rappers I won’t bother to name.

So when they dropped Armed to the Teeth, it made no sense except that the people at Subnoize used it as a device to spread their misogyny. While the addition of guitars were cool, tracks like “Porn Star” were not. It’s exactly what I feared and what we got. For some reason they think that if they hate women, then every artist on Subnoize must sing about hating women. Even beyond the occasional misogyny the album lacked spirit. The only time it did, it’s because it had song titles like “Reclaim the Throne”. Clearly, they weren’t over the whole D&D thing.

From the beginning there is a suicidal fatal darkness to this album that never lets go. The opening track goes off about emotions and fear. “The Shining” talks about a spinning world that makes you feel lost. Just look at the song titles from that track on – “Devil”, “The Predator”, “Chemical Imbalance”. Swollen aim for a balance between the murder raps of Necro and the depressive introspection of Sadistik – self-harm as a sign of strength.

The result is absolutely badass and fun. It’s over-the-top, yes, but its darkness doesn’t mean a lack of fun. Swollen just trade in being warriors to being creepy dudes. “Night Vision” and “Chemical Imbalance” are the pumping heart of the album, where Mad Child swings from self-hating to bragging, often in the same line. You can hear his passion, too. He repeats the same rhymes a few times, but its his fury, his anger, how it’s directed at everyone (including himself) and no one at the same that makes the verse of “Night Vision” one of the best verses in Hip-Hop ever. Some rappers may have written more clever rhymes, but such passion is rare, especially in Boom Bap.

You can also look at this album as not just Swollen taking their style to the extreme, but also pushing the Boom Bap genre to actual darkness. Rob the Viking also shines here, knowing that the lyrics would be nothing without creepy sounds. While they don’t really go the danceable route – “Fire”, “Sound of the Drum” and “Devil” are the only times they raise the tempo and let the drums kick hard – he creates great soundscapes. Odd, unclear sounds surround these songs. A generator-like hum makes “Night Vision” way creepier. Rob knows that if the drums don’t take a central place, something else must. His atmospheric is actually atmospheric and enveloping. Calling it ‘camp’ is just silly. There was no other way of achieving this besides piling the odd noises.

Mad Child is the star here, which can sometimes be sad. All of the struggles he talked about in Armed to the Teeth are here out in the open. It might as well be an exorcism of his demons. Some songs are solo, like “Chemical Imbalance”. That leaves Prevail a bit in the dust, since his lyrics don’t have that personal nature but just cool imagery of satanic rituals, killing people, the undead and general darkness. He can never capture Mad Child’s fury who raps like a man possessed. It’s most apparent in “Night Vision” where his verse is almost useless. That said, he’s still an integral part. Without him this would become an incoherent and self-centered work. Prevail’s slightly more lighthearted approach is necessary.

The best thing about this album is how it manages to be unique, a whole piece without straying too far. Traditional Hip-Hop is an extremely minimalist genre so you get a lot of rappers saying nothing over white noise. It’s almost frightening how similar most of the canon is. Swollen Members don’t pull any tricks here, it’s just they got a more interesting concept and more passion. In the end Hip-Hop is sound art, and no matter how clever your lyrics are you need passion and to rap with conviction. Dagger Mouth is a strong contender for the best Boom Bap rap album ever. It actually takes advantage of the genre’s style and limits. It uses the minimalist beats to let the rappers go crazy, so the rappers actually go crazy. At the same time the beats remain important, providing odd sounds that change the tone of the songs – whether it’s the aggressive “Night Vision”, the moody “Chemical Imbalance” or the self-congratulating “Mr. Impossible”. I want to blame Subnoize for this album’s lack of success, but then again if they didn’t shat out Armed to the Teeth they wouldn’t feel the need to apologize and make a glorious comeback.

4 daggers out of 5

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A.S. King – Please Ignore Vera Dietz

 

verdietz__spanJust a while ago, I read a Young Adult novel that seems to be the positive mirror of this. It was Jennifer Brown’s Hate List. Both novels deal with a tragedy, specifically a girl losing a boy to death and how it affects their lives. The relationship was big. Both happen to be outcasts in a Nowheresville. Relationships with the family is rocky and there is a sexually-active, supposedly hot chick that’s evil involved.

The difference is in how Hate List is darker, but more sympathetic whereas King’s book has more shocking content on the surface but less of the empathy which is truly disturbing. Therefore, at the bottom there isn’t much horror or insight. King lays out at the beginning who are the good guys and who are the bad. Nowhere in the novel do they get a chance to prove otherwise and we don’t get any view of their inner world. Dad figure swings from bad to good, and it’s actually nice to see a parental figure being allowed to be flawed but not a complete asshole. Sadly, this is where the good characterization ends.

I’m all for novels like this. Teenagers need books like these which deal with drugs, sex and death. They experience these things at this age and sometimes what they need isn’t the perspective of an adult, but a lot of perspectives similar to theirs. Books like this mention the important subject, but they offer such a narrow perspective. Perhaps for those for whom death and alcoholism ring close, this book can be some kind of an emotional outlet. For the rest of us, though, it’s too close-minded.

My issue is not with the content and not even that it’s quite wacky, moving away from the gritty-realism authors like this try to imitate. I can take the octagonal treehouse and teenagers burning shit down. I can even take the enigmatic, hot outcast male. Where’s the life in them, though?

Charlie isn’t as bad as Green’s females, but we still get a character with zero personal issues that we’re supposed to adore. He’s a dream boy – wild, untamed, skinny, always doing things, putting a tough exterior but is actually romantic and with some emotional issues. Of course, the romantic side and the emotional baggage is never let out – because men with emotions aren’t sexy. For some reason, too, love interests in these novels are always skinny and this is passed off as if it’s against the beauty ideal.

Eventually he goes to the dark side to be with ‘cool people’. King’s version of the Evil Cool isn’t jocks and football junkies for a change, but a bunch of druggies and a rocker girl. As for her, she happens to have a lot of sex and is nasty to people. Why she’s nasty to people, we never understand. Her sexual nature is also often painted hostile and morally low, but I’m not sure why besides the fact it’s ‘conformist’ – unlike Charlie who is really cool and builds treehouses.

She’s so nasty that she ruins everyone’s lives. I’m sure there are people like this, but if only King gave us a little insight into why she does what she does. Jenny ends up being nothing more than a plot device and someone we could hate. Besides breaking up between the main character and her lover, she has no role.

Many characters in this novel fit a scary template in fiction – characters whose main purpose is that we’ll have something to hate. Such characters contain some qualities that nearly everyone will claim as bad – cruelty, sadism, lack of empathy. On top of that the authors will put something else to make them uncool, like being stupid or doing too many drugs or being too conserative, or maybe just racist. We’ll be expected to really detest this character and hope for their downfall.

The problem is, we often feel this way in real life towards people because it’s all we’ve been exposed to. Sometimes hating people is justified, but what’s wrong is hating them while denying their humanity. Once we draw a too distinct line between us and the evil, we override the purpose of morality. Morality then is not decided by deeds or virtues, but by people. ‘A is just because of X’ becomes ‘A is just because B is unjust’. That type of morality leaves no room for redemption, and so no room for admitting when we’re wrong (since we can’t be – the other side must be wrong!). Once we adopt such a morality, nothing prevents us from becoming what we hate.

Sadly this is what King has to offer us. Jenny and the others remain an enigma – assholes without character. If only King would’ve developed further, maybe she could’ve conjured something more horrifying, more haunting. Evil is at its scariest when we realize we can do it, too. That’s why pictures of serial killers are so frightening. We look at them and see flesh and blood just like us.

Plot doesn’t matter much in novels like these since the psychological development of the character is important. King is better than Brown in creating a main character. The writing is utilitarian and doesn’t add much, but there’s a toughness to the writing, an edge that lets Vera be more than an outcast. She’s a tough person who bottles it all until it comes back out. While King is not the peak of minimalism, she lets just enough edge to let this psyche be expressed in the prose.

It would’ve been better if she didn’t need a big event for the story to revolve on. Considering how Vera has enough depth to carry a story on her own – not much, but just enough – big explosions were unnecessary. All we needed was to see these characters go about their lives, how their worldviews and personalities – Vera’s detachment, will to be responsible and for escapism and Charlie’s adventurous spirit – collide, stray, collide again and eventually fall apart. She does it quite successfully throughout the novel. The relationship is convincing enough with how the characters relate and then go separate ways when puberty hits.

Scattered throughout the novels are other perspectives – the pagoda, the father. King doesn’t have the writing ability to give these a new tone. Don’t look at the heading and you’ll find the father and the daughter are speaking in the same internal voice. Still, it’s a refreshing addition that almost gets close to adding empathy to this story. Sadly, these are tidbits, not a choice of method that re-frames the whole novel. Most likely a young author will be inspired by this but will accidentally credit As I Lay Dying.

It’s quick and to the point, but mostly it’s an insulting collection of stereotypes. We all could use books, like music, that offer us catharsis but this is not a song that will carry on to future years. It’s more like your first local show, where the mere presence of sound and emotion is enough to inspire you to keep digging. You won’t remember precise details about that band, and the same goes for this book.

1.5 rocker girls out of 5

Genei wo Kakeru Taiyou (Daybreak Illusion)

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Horror comes from inside and is directed inside. People who want to kill us are quite scary, but they’re a very specific problem. True horror is in realizing that we can be the killers, that we can be what we hate. It throws a big wrench in our grand narrative and shatters it to pieces. That’s why we limit our consciousness, assume the patriarchy or the media or the government is to blame for it all. Negative feelings are bad, but the true problem must be outside us.

Obvious comparisons to Madoka spring up, but these are superficial comparisons. The latter is more existential and philosophical, less concerned with the emotions of its characters and relying more on structure and mechanics to deliver its philosophical idea. Daybreak Illusion is far more emotional, fantastical and wild. Each character has distinct demeanor, it has many arcs which peek into other people’s lives and the main subject matter is emotion, not the grand meaning of life.

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With that aside, let’s focus on what’s actually going on here, something deeper than how ‘logical’ the story is. Cliched stories that flood your cinema have an external evil. These are comfortable fantasies. The bad is always outside of us. We need to kill it. Some of them improve and we can converse with these evil, but it’s still outside. The third stage is recognizing something inside of us is evil, but an external thing brings it out. The fourth, and most horrifying stage, is realizing that each of us partakes in the conspiracy against the human race.

Daybreak Illusion belongs in the third category, which is a weird one. Stories that reach there are aware of theme exploration, that their story shouldn’t just give us a good time with pretty visuals. You can’t reach that stage without trying to be deep. The anime really wants to be more, not just a copy of Madoka but to compete against it and expand on the genre. It does that fine enough, but not good enough.

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Daemonia are the big evil, but they’re amplifiers of already-present negative emotions. Yet by pushing the source of the bad outside, the series isolates it and doesn’t explore their issues too deeply. Many of the characters become ‘not themselves’ when the Daemonia take over, but that’s just avoiding the horror. The horror is realizing that the bad side is just as a part of ourselves as the good side.

The series is always close to truly delving into the depths of emotion, but never getting there. A climatic conflict does it the best, showing how we’re responsible to each other. Main character finds herself needing to actually face another person’s emotions, and digging inside of her to find out what she really feels. It’s an interesting position to put the main character in, but it doesn’t solve the big conflict. All ends with a big Final Boss Fight full of flashing lights and explosions.

In the most of the arcs though, the victims are just innocent people who are tempted by the devil. By the time they start their rampage, they’re supposedly ‘not themselves’. The escape from horror isn’t deliberate. Our heroes talk to the Daemonia and are frigthened by the fact that these are people. In a way, by showing us that these distorted monsters are still actually human beings, we’re supposed to be all the more horrified by our negative feelings. Yet this doesn’t work, since these Daemonia too end up too alien from us, their cause being external. People transform into monsters because something infected them, not because they made decisions (or were born in environments) that turned them into monsters.

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For the characters in the story these people are real enough, even when they come looking like man-eating plants. What it does better than Madoka is showing the journey and emotional development of heroes caught in the midst of a cosmic battle. Characters actually have a will and their reactions to the events. If in the first episodes the anime seems aimless, it’s only because it really tells the story of these girls and nothing else. Any time the story loses its direction is when it sways from it.

Although these characters aren’t particularly deep, they’re given distinct views about the battle, the world and what they get from it. In the first few episodes the anime actually threatens to improve on Madoka, since it’s far more in touch with what kind of dilemmas and conflicts would arise in this situation. Of course it uses Monster of the Week format, because anything else is a distraction. At its most exciting, we see them clashing and arguing and talking about what they’re going through. How it feels like to be the hero is where the excitement lies.

The drop in quality comes later. Suddenly we get a more rigid structure and a main villain. Already in the beginning we had some meaningless technobabble, but it avoided getting technical. Battle ended when there was no emotions left to explore in that conflict. The final conflict also ends thanks to the heroes reaching a conclusion, deciding to rebel against their own fate. Yet we don’t actually see them reaching this conclusion.

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A trait of messy anime, especially those with huge epic stories and wacky art styles is that they have a slew of themes and they don’t know which one to focus on, or even which one fit their structure. First the anime start with exploring how negative emotions get the best of us, how the evil is supposed to be inside of us. Then this is thrown away, not completely resolved and instead out of nowhere the girls are fighting against fate.

Now, if the series had something to say about emotional determinism it would be fine. Exploring the conflict of will and choice is the next big thing, since so far we all agree we can’t control our emotions. The whole idea of fate comes from the Tarot, though, not because the series wanted to explore it in the first place. Messy structures tend to arise naturally from theme-focused anime, but here it’s because the show couldn’t focus on its ideas.

At least on the surface it works well enough. As a simple heroic story, I’d take this over many others. Even if its exploration is shallow, it gains from it enough emotional weight. These battles matter. We see the characters going through something during these moments of violence and how their psyche is affected. It’s not just ‘beat up those deamons and get some shwarma’. It hasn’t reached the heights it’s aiming for, but it’s still an exciting story with great visuals. For some, that’s enough.

3 daemonia out of 5

 

 

Thomas Ligotti – Grimscribe

 

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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

Rag’n’Bone Man – Wolves

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It seems fans of Soul music have annoying purists. I know, it sounds weird. Soul music at its best is so warm and welcoming. Whether you’re bumping the aimless, hook-free stuff of Marvine Gaye or Stevie’s more melodic works, Soul is never high brow, never patronizing the listener. In complete opposition to the rock of the 70’s, Soul music is just an ordinary man with a prettier voice. Clearly, in listening to it nothing should matter much besides having good melodies, a good voice and an all-around charm.

This is too much to ask apparently, so we’re back to questions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘real Soul’. Since Rag’n’Bone Man – the most Bluesy name you can come up with since Seasick Steve – doesn’t have a Funk track going on for 10 minutes and endless falsetto without a tune, this is ‘bland Soul’. Come to think of it, Marvin Gaye was just showing off his vocal acrobatics over lightweight Funk. If that is ‘real Soul’, I’ll take Rag’n’Bone’s version any day. He has better hooks and his music is something more besides beating you over the head with how wonderful the world is because you’re a singer with a pretty voice.

Speaking of beautiful voice, writing off Rag’n’Bone as generic is odd. The last time such a gloomy, pessimistic artist hit the chart was, well, the Weeknd or Melanie Martinez. His music is actually not that close to Charlie Puth. He’s not a revivalist, churning out the old love songs with some horns and a more coherent song structure. His roots go way back, to the earliest of Folk music back when all there was to sing about was death.

This album is such a gloomy, death-obsessed thing. Rag’n’Bone sounds either at a funeral, on the verge of dying, after killing someone or before killing someone. Of course his low voice is the main attraction but it’s also how he uses it. His style of singing is the opposite of vocal acrobatics. That’s why comparing him to Soul singers is a bit odd, since he rarely takes those flights Marvin Gaye is famous for. Althoug falsetto occasionally leaks, it’s never dominant. What is dominant is how low his voice is, so low it might as well be buried.

The best expression of that is in the title track where he truly sounds dangerous. On the verses he’s frantic and almost loses the melody, but on the chorus the voice is so low you can imagine him trying really, really hard to contain himself form whatever danger is inside of him. It’s obviously about something inside of him that’s he’s scared of. The da-da-da voices in the backgrounds aren’t helpful. They are the voices in your head encouraging you to hurt or to cause mayhem. To think such a song will top the charts is uncanny. Such a song is too gloomy, too dangerous and too scared of itself to be comfortable. All the brutal screams Death Metal bands come up with, and they can’t reach the fear of the self in that song.

On the other side you get “Guilty”, which is a breakbeat-laden Blues thing where Rag’n’Bone claims he’s not guilty for feeling about hurting the lover he just woke up next to. Already in the opening lines we get death, because somewhere in this ‘million ways to hurt’ there must be an element of violence. Two lines later he writes the lover off completely. Although the rest of the song is simply about leaving a person, the first lines and those hard drums did their thing. Again, his low voice contributes a lot. It adds a layer of toughness and darkness to it all. Any other singer couldn’t evoke the image of death.

Death includes the loss of others, and “Life in Her Yet” is a more subdued number where he tries desperately to cling to someone who’s dead or lost all their memory. The repetition of the title is him trying desperately to convince himself you can defeat death, but saying that he ‘can’t let go’ isn’t a sign of strength but of weakness. He needs her. He cannot live with someone dying. In this song there is no incredibly low voice, but soft and defeated singing.

These are the main attratctions, but every song has the spectre of death hunting them. After all there’s a song called “Lay My Body Down”. Whatever “Reuben’s Train” is about, he sings it like a dirge at a funeral. From the singing alone, low and stretching into infinity you can deduce that the subject of the song must be dead. “No Mother” transforms the stomping work songs (that were all about death) with bass wobbles. Despite the EDM influence, it doens’t add any joy to the song.

He achieves this atmosphere successfuly because he understands how old Folk music works. He’s closer to Dock Boggs than anyone contemporary. The brand of ‘serious music’ he’s been grouped with, the bland wailing of Adele and Ed Sheeran are nowhere to be found. Always he’s a slave to the melody, but in the old days where all you had was a pickaxe and a banjo you couldn’t wail like you’re on the X-Factor. Sure, his voice is more polished and he has a greater variety in tone. Most Folk singers couldn’t pull off both “Guilty” and “Life in Her Yet” since they’re completely opposite characters. Now this may seem inauthentic, but by being aware of the overall theme of death he connects these two. They become two different expressions of the same theme.

3.5 wolves out of 5

Jennifer Brown – Hate List

תוצאת תמונה עבור ‪jennifer brown hate list‬‏

Whenever the subject of school shooting rears its head, someone has to point out that it’s a topic for overly-privileged kids. The mere act of talking about privilege in this context is a display of a lack of empathy, not a clever critique of society. It also misses the point, and why school shooting became so iconic. To understand that you have to understand what a terror attack is.

A terror attack isn’t one where people simply get hurt. Killing isn’t even the main objective. Terror is communicative violence, its purpose is to attack an icon and make everyone connect that icon to the event. Notice that the most famous terror attacks are always connected to a major place. The twin towers aren’t just big, but in an iconic place in an iconic city. The purpose was to make us always fear whenever we’re near that ground, and many will be near that ground since it’s so iconic. Terror attacks are meant to devastate us, to cause emotional damage far beyond the initial event.

Jennifer Brown generally takes the well-worn narrative of the school shooting, that of a bullied kid having his revenge on the world. Consciously or unconsciously though, she’s aware of the meaning of a school shooting, its similarity to a terror attack. Her book isn’t so much about bullying but about the devastating effect of a tragedy.

Although written in the typical form of a Young Adult novel – minimalist, first-person, a whole lot of reflection and emotional confession – the book tries to break outside its main character’s head. In the end of the novel Brown wrote this was Valerie’s story, and the structure may fit this but the content doesn’t. She’s a character as much as she is a window for us to witness the effect of tragedy on people.

Thankfully, Brown tries to grasp the complexity and psychology in the fallout of tragedy. Everyone reacts differently. Some stick to their old ways. Others radically change it. Some are angry, others become forgiving because what’s the point? Tragedy doesn’t make us into angelic beings. You actually can’t predict what tragedy will make of us.

Brown doesn’t manage to capture it with enough complexity to have impact. Only in the end there is a truly profound moment, one where the fragility of being human is captured. A short inscription on the grave of the shooter gets it. His grave is pushed aside with a small epitaph because he is the killer after all, but the killer had a mom who loved him after all. It echoes Susan Klebold’s article, or any interview with a parent of a killer. Victims had families who will never be the same again, but the killer also had a family who loved him.

A good chunk of the book is about this, about carrying on knowing the person you loved is a killer. I wish Brown would’ve delved into this dilemma more deeply, but then again this is extremely difficult. The highlights are the moments where Valerie is allowed to reminisce about the good times, and where she’s trying to connect what she knew of Nick to the violence. In these moments, despite the lack of character development, she finds some emotional punch.

Like many a Young Adult novelists, Brown’s characters are driven by emotion, not a psyche that’s unique to them. She has enough empathy that her characters react in various ways. Even the assholes who don’t change, who become more asshole-ish still come off as human being. Their point of view is there in front of us. Sure, it sucks for Valerie, but it also sucks for the father. His character is the most interesting since he’s supposed to be the least sympathetic – the father who abandons his family for a younger woman. His behavior never goes against this archetype, but in subtle moments we’re allowed to understand him and why he’d go after someone younger.

The portrayal is complex because of the variety of reactions. The problem is these are just reactions floating around, not tied to anything. Those few who get developed don’t end up as anything interesting. Nick is a typical sexy outcast – thin, listens to Rock music and can quote Shakespear. Bullying in this novel isn’t quite convincing, since Nick too often plays like a sexy mysterious guy. It’s not overdone, but nothing about him is especially weird. Bullies seek the weirdo, the one who isn’t flamboyent, doesn’t rebel and doesn’t have anything to offer but weirdness.

Likewise, it’s hard to think of what we learned about these characters. They’re human enough, but the complexity is too vague. It’s all outlines which are good enough, but I’m left here constructing their psyche. For once, minimalism betrayed the story. This story needed some inspiration from Dreisser, long slow moments that show who they are beyond the tragedy. Brown focuses so much on the effect of tragedy she creates people who have no lives outside of the tragedy. It’s only half the work.

It’s a shame, because otherwise Brown proves to be more capable than her peers. YA has a lot of talented writers, but they capture the spirit, the energy of youth without enough depth. These are enjoyable books, but mostly as research material before you write your own. Brown does a little better by widening her perspective, and so the novel is not just the story of Valerie but of everyone and how they deal with grief, how they cope with the tragedy. If only we could get a little deeper underneath these reactions, if only we could hear more than just their voices but let us walk in their shoes. I can’t tell if Brown doesn’t try or is just in incapable, but widening her reach is enough to give this novel extra emotional punch.

Hate List is not a total classic in the genre, but it deserves some respect in it. Many authors could learn from Brown’s wide reach, and the topic of school shooting gets a respectful treatment for once. Perhaps Brown is not just good enough to reach those heights, but she knows which mountains to climbs, what to do and so the novel has far more good in it than bad.

3 out of 5

Kaiba

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Great works of art are not easy to review. They are not common like the cesspool of bad art. Bad art is easy to deconstruct, to show how pathetically horrible they are. “So bad it’s good” exists because these works are so bizarre, so extraordinary that they become unique. Bad art is never unique its badness. In contrast, great works of art always end up redefining what ‘good’ is, so any review of a masterpiece will never be analytical and conclusive. It always end up chasing something that we can only grasp a piece of, like a poet looking at a beautiful line he wrote and knowing he can never write a worthy poem of it.

Kaiba is one of those artworks. I say it deliberately. Judgment of it is not confined to anime. It transcends media, reaches something so deeply human and awe-inspiring that it becomes a part of you. Do not expect a rational explanation of why this anime is better than pretty much anything. If we understood completely why it’s so good, we’d have masterpiece dropping from the skies. I can try, though.

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The key to understanding Kaiba is understanding how it tells a story, specifically how it takes advantage of the personal nature of fiction. All art, including fiction, is personal. It is a product of human thought, a translation of your entire Being – your experiences, philosophy, unconscious, passions – into some kind of experience that another being can take on. Kaiba is a ridiculously expressive work. Every scene is imbued with emotion. Every object says something about what it represents. It’s so emotionally draining because of that.

Memory is the big topic, but Kaiba isn’t just about memory. In a cliched way, it’s existentialist, asking what we are. Its answer is memories, but memories are also information. The anime explores this intersection of information that defines us. Notice the symbols. When memory isn’t converted to information, it is organic and free – it is lifelike memory eggs. These are also tiny, fragile and fleeting. The memories float away and are easily lost.

The roe is us, so they use to show how tiny we are when death strikes. When a character dies, their bodies become liquid and vanish completely. The ‘self’ becomes just a bunch of yellow pieces floating way. It expresses the loss of death, how death completely erase us and we become nothing. The memory chip – a drill-like thing – can also die so easily, if it’s lost it’s gone forever. Sure, we can try to capture those roe or to protect the chip, but it’s so difficult. It’s an expression of how fragile we are.

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Yet converting ourselves into information makes us so much easier to control, and easier for us to control others. Altering other people’s memories is a sci-fi trope, but this anime is concerned with how it affects everyone, how it affects our personal lives. We see the small results of this – how erasing someone’s childhood erases who they are and they end up becoming nothing but a memory. How this power to change personal reality blurs into thinking we can change reality itself – a direct link to megalomania and tyranny.

Our memories are our personality. Once we control them, edit them, change them all lines break down. The world of Kaiba looks funny by design, but that’s because how the people experience it. People can also put their memories into a whole new body. In one episode this results in a world where bodies are manufactured like clothes. Its reality is grotesque, a mass of weird shapes that’s disorientating. Somehow we ended up creating a more chaotic reality than nature.

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Leaning towards a socioeconomic critique of society, the anime shows a world in which memories – selves – become products. So a character sells her own body with hopes that her memory will be kept. Selves are no longer precious. This society isn’t painted with strokes of black to show you how evil rich people are. Rather, to illustrate the chaos of it, we see selling your own body and putting yourself in a chip is no guarantee. You’re relinquishing control of yourself, your grip on the world.

Yet this ‘information’ is never just ‘information’. Consciousness was the result of accumalating all these pieces of data and connecting them. So we’re never really dead, and using memories this way is using people as objects. The anime is deeply concerned with living things. In a gallery of memories, the people who own these memories cry out to be released.

Everyone’s concerns are always personal. Although the characters are simple, they have motivation and a humanity. A sheriff who really wants a girl at first seems like a greedy bastard, but he’s a person. That’s his wants, and when we see this want doesn’t make him just an asshole but a good person we’re encouraged to sympathize with him. In the end, he’s a ‘human’ being – with people he loves, things he wants, and dreams lost when death comes.

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Although there are antagonists, the series always reminds us that they’re people in the most simple way. People want power, but not because they’re evil. They want it because they’re human beings, so we see the ringleader of the resistance crumbling to tears when he realizes what he’s done. He had to erase memories that painted him in a bad light, but the result was losing a friend.

This anime is in the end about treasuring people. The idea of memory is just a tool to show us how we can lose people, no matter how hard we work to keep them. We put their identity, their whole being in a chip but then that chip is lost. We sell a loved one’s body, hoping the salesman will keep the information in a chip. A friend blocks our ambition, so we erase some memories only to realize the whole person is gone. Eventually this anime reaches an important conclusion about being – we need each other, we’re social animals, power doens’t make up for it.

The castle of Warp is a lonely place. The only person he has is an all-seeing robot. He’s not happy and the only thing he can talk about are who to execute. He may be the king of memories, but these are his own memories. What good are they? In a beautiful scene Popo and the resistance at the palace, and it has a huge opening to a black void. That’s the height of power to you, a lonely high place looking out into nothing. The only thing that’s there are themselves, yet they’re craving control.

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The romance between Neiro and Kaiba isn’t a symbol for romance, but what’s really important – connection. Even during oppression, they found something of their own, a precious shared memory that’s enough. Separate yourself from the struggle for power. The privileges of the rich to put themselves in memory chips and live forever aren’t that worthwhile in the end. Every world touched by this is grotesque, people are lost yet they are still people.

You cannot talk about the art without mentioning the Neverhood, which seems like a direct inspiration for the anime. Both endings and beginning borrow from it. It opens with a man seeing an unknown, bizarre world. The ending includes a darker version of the hero and a gigantic, self-sacrificing robot. Like the Neverhood, the design is cartoonish, nonsensical and imbued with meaning and emotions. Look at the planet where the only thing that matters is the story of two old people. The planet itself is nothing but their tower. The underworld is almost colorless – but almost, since it still has some life in it. The club is colorful and weird but has a dominating shade of purple – a disorientating effect. Vanilla looks like what we expect from an asshole with the fat belly and aggressive face (Only his character later proves to be more). There is even a creature who flies by a propeller and doesn’t speak – like the sidekick from old video games. It’s as unrealistic as you get, but no scene is without emotional overtones just like life – and that makes it far closer to reality than anything else.

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Likewise the soundtrack couldn’t be better, a collection of gentle electronic sounds. It fits with the slightly childish designs, but it has the same fragility of the world. A lot of it sounds like Boards of Canada, only it takes it to less nostalgic tones. The soundtrack mostly expresses a reflective, introspective atmosphere, one of both awe and terror. Some tracks are colder and harsher that reminds us that this world is still harsh, a world where selves can be sold. Some tracks have beautiful, intimate melodies to go along with the theme of connection.

There is no other anime like Kaiba, an anime so expressive, where every shot is charged with emotion, wonder, terror and humanity. ‘Depth’ isn’t the right word. It’s not an intellectual, symbolic exercise like Paranoia Agent or a psychological exploration like Digimon Tamers yet it’s somehow better than these two. Perhaps because it takes anime to the origin of art – the expression, not explanation, of human experience. Nothing I could write would do this anime justice.