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

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

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

Sarah Perry – Every Cradle is a Grave


Two ideas are hard-wired into our minds. We believe life is good and that forcing people into existence is a positive thing not because of rational thinking. Genes make us think this way, because this is how they progress. Without these ideas, an organism kills itself and doesn’t produce offspring. Genes die, and genes’ purpose is to continue.

People always killed themselves. Some cultures even claimed it’s virtuous in certain situations. We’ve made huge ‘progress’ (Or, more correctly, changes) over the years thanks to doubters who kept tearing down ideas and replacing them with new ones. The general ideas about the value of life and birth remained the same, though. One famous philosopher talked about how we shouldn’t have kids, but is there any major literary work that asks this question?

You can’t blame Perry for not digging deep enough. She’s in the toughest stage of philosophy. Ethics and the meaning of life are both hard subjects, and going against your own genes is even harder. Few people made that journey – many who tried just said suicidal people got some chemical imbalance and called it a day. If her exploration is sometimes a little shallow, it’s only because she has few sources to draw from.

Her section about suicide is the most disappointing one. It’s a shame, because it’s also the most important one. Of all the ideas in this book, assisted suicide is the most practical one. The suicide prohibition is harmful and no different than oppression of minorities.

We treat suicidal people like criminals. Voicing misogynistic or racist thoughts is less dangerous than voicing suicidal thoughts. People can be hospitalized against their will for wanting to die. No suicide prevention is willing to actually talk to suicidal people, to deal with the arguments behind why suicide is a valid option. At least when people argue against misogyny, they got science and philosophy behind them. When people talk about suicide, they write people off as ‘irrational’.

There are a lot of ways to look at this tricky subject. Suicide is a private action that causes great distress to the environment. Perry doesn’t delve enough into why suicide should be protected. The main arguments suicide are the value of life and the harm it causes to others. The harm it causes to others is especially important, since ethics often blur when freedom, pleasure and pain mix.

While Perry explains briefly the principle of consent that transform murder into assisted suicide, it’s not enough. Suicide causes extreme pain and we need more allegories, more rephrasing of why it’s okay for a person to kill themselves. There’s a whole chapter about the suicide contagion which feels a little pointless – sure, it’s a thing but not as central to the debate as other things.

The chapter about social pain is fantastic and too short. It’s a new way to approach the problem of suicide and is informative even if you don’t believe in the right to die. The common narrative is that people kill themselves because they’re depressed is common and pretty comfortable. It makes the problem more complex – how do you solve depression? – but it erases responsibility. Perry’s idea that people kill themselves because of failed social belonging demands a revolution in suicide prevention. Suicide prevention should start earlier, and constantly happen. If people kill themselves because they don’t belong, we need to create a more welcoming, a more social society.

This type of idea is easy to explain, since people experience a lot of social pain. Suicide is causing social pain, actually – you reject people, deeming them not worth the time. It’s also the only moral type of suicide – suicide prevention by improving life, rather than stopping the act itself.

Suicide is a difficult subject. There are the practical side of how we make assisted suicide available – who’s fit, who loses the right to die, whether there’s an age of consent. The issue of how people feel after someone dies to suicide cannot be ignored. No matter how integral the right to die is, suicide leaves a huge pain (In fact, it’s considered the worst way to lose someone). Perry doesn’t do enough to explore such an alien idea to many.

Her writings about antinatalism is far better. She does write off the subjective perspective too easily, though. This higlight the core difference between the right to die and antinatalism. Both rely on different versions of morality. The former values freedom and the subjective perception, the other one is about preventing harm.

So even if life is overall bad, the fact people perceive it overall to be worthwhile is important. People who behave in a ‘suicidal’ way, according to her, may just be optismitic enough to believe it’ll be worth it in the end. Maybe they take these huge gambles because they value life so much that even if the gamble fails, life is still worthwhile.

Nevertheless, her anti-life arguments can’t be written off easily. They demand questioning our genes. Picking apart our daily schedules is important even if you believe life is worthwhile. By showing us how much time we waste on doing nothing, how much of our life is actually unpleasant she motivates change. If you truly think life is worthwhile, then you must act in ways that’ll prove it. If social pain encourages suicide, we must build a more friendly, communal society. Our morality relies more about not doing harm than actually doing good. What kind of society is it where we only avoid harm but don’t do good? A good life isn’t defined by lack – happiness due to absence rarely lasts. We’re happy when we have friends, but we’re not happy because we’re not being bullied.

The chapter about the natural world is also essential reading. It’s a radical and rare view of nature – not as a friendly, optimal place but one whose behavior is actually anti-life. So many animals die so young. Yet we don’t interfere when the female mantis eats the male’s head. How do animal rights work in this context? Why is it wrong to kill animals, or to ignore murder but okay to ignore it when it the organism aren’t human beings?

What makes the book so valueable is that even if you don’t agree with Perry’s thesis – many won’t, since they either love life too much or they can’t resist their genes – the ideas here are still useful and thought-provoking. It’s not just about how bad life is, but what to do with it. The last chapter, “Living in the Epilogue” is both horrifying and comforting. If things are really that bad, we can at least speed up life by enjoying it. Also, who has it worse? The person who’s about to die or the person who has 90 unwanted years ahead of them?

It’s an incomplete book, but antinatalism and suicide are difficult subjects. Perry at least confronts them instead of writing them off. Maybe someday in the future – if we have one – this book will become slightly outdated because of some basic sections. For now, this is a book that stares at difficult subjects in the face, provides tough answers and plenty of room for discussions or to move forward. You don’t have to agree with Perry to enjoy this. Many of her ideas can be used to improve society. As she said in the beginning, and something we often forget – we’re all humans, and what drives ethical philosophy is compassion for others.

4.5 cradles out of 5 graves

Dave Cullen – Columbine

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You can look at the story of Columbine and think it’s just a bunch of whiny, privileged white males. That’s okay. People write off people’s troubles in similar ways. As we know, black people are less intelligent and cultured, so who cares what’s going on in Africa?

The world is full of stories. People murder and cause terrorist attacks all the time and it’s not something I feel comfortable reading. The purpose of the storyteller is to extract the meaning out of it. This book is not just the recounting of the events in Columbine and what came after/before. It’s a gigantic argument why the story even matters in the first place. Cullen does an amazing job. No scene is without purpose. No scene exists only to spout details. Each detail has insight into another topic. Like the best non-fiction, Columbine is more about other subjects than its title.

Cullen dispels two big, contrasting myths. There’s the ‘psycho villain’ myth, and the ‘revenge of the nerds’ myth. The truth is actually somewhere in between, or at least split between the killers. The truth was, Columbine Massacre was instigated by a single person.

The writings about psychopathy here are integral. Psychopathy was the cause of the massacre, and also what people miss. People believe in Just World and want to believe that moral people are also good social presence. If someone’s charismatic and hot, then he cannot be bad. However, the fat dude who sends you a message on Facebook is a creep. Such a world is ordered, easy to navigate and we know what to fear.

Psychopaths blow it apart. The true danger isn’t the socially inept person. He’s too timid and his doors are blocked. In order for him to cause social crime, he first needs to become a part of society. Psychopaths are the most desirable people. They’re aces in imitating social cues and personalities but they have no good intentions. They don’t even have empathy.

In truth, there’s nothing like ‘what a killer/rapist/thief’ look like. People who want to deliberately harm – and psychopaths do – need to conceal themselves. How else can a rapist do his crime, if he can’t convince his victim to trust them in an isolated setting? Eric Harris was successful. Women loved him. When he apologized, everyone was convinced. He knew exactly how to hint about the killing to see who’s on board. People couldn’t believe Eric would do it because of his social skills, but his high social skills are directly related to his lack of empathy which pushed him to massacre. It’s a bizarre thing. The most dangerous people are designed to look benign.

What’s ironic is during all the time leading to Columbine, it was Dylan who got the most flak. Dylan was only in it to kill himself. The journals are up online if you want to read it. Dylan was soaked in self-loathing. His character was truly tragic. While I’m not excusing what Dylan did, he’s perhaps just as a victim as the others. He barely even shoot during the massacre. His depressive state and feelings of powerlessness made him an easy target for a psychopath needing an accomplice. Harris provided him a way out. Psychopaths are hard to stop, but what if someone reached out to Dylan before?

This situation reveals something dark about our society. It’s caused by our overall preference for socially skilled people over everything. Yes, this would happen again. In the end, what we want are people who can act like Harris. We want charismatic people who can lead, who look good and can tell jokes. Dylan may have been almost innocent, but socially he’s useless. What’s there to do with a depressive suicidal? Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, we will always support Harris over Dylan. Harris can navigate social situations gracefully, and for a social animal nothing is more important.

Aside from the killer’s psych, the book reveals the many shades of tragedies with multiple victims. Not everyone comes out the same. The stories of survivors, or the bereaved, are vastly different. Cullen tells the story they deserve with empathy. After such a tragedy, you need a spotlight on your unique position. No matter how many suffered with you, your misery is still real. Lumping it up with everyone else is insulting.

It’s also a story of media, and how the way we report events affect their influence. For those who are interested in media studies, this is essential. The parts about the eyewitnesses’ unreliability are fantastic. Such tragic stories have a stronger demand for precise details. These situations, by their nature, confuse us and we need every information we can have to understand them. The intensity of these situation also leads to confused memory. It’s almost funny how people thought there are multiple killers. One person saw Dylan & Eric with trenchcoats. Then they took off and a different person saw them.

An important arc is the story of Cassie, the supposed martyr. Initially it was reported she claimed to believe in God right before being shot. In reality this exchanged happened with a different student who survived. Yet people were quick to believe Cassie’s story and stuck to it even once the truth goes out. It goes to show you what kind of moral responsbility the media has. The reporting of this story affected lives. A survivor in trauma who needed her story told has been pushed aside while everyone lives in a lie.

I don’t think the conclusion of this book was that tragedy was inevitble, that Eric and Dylan were pure evil and we’re all victims. What makes the book so dark is that it shows how badly we function when tragedy strikes. Aside from the aforementioned psychopathy, there’s a coverup, ganging up on parents without knowing why and a parent who becomes a ranting anti-abortion activists. If anything, it’s almost fatalist. What could we do? We’re only human. Why disclose that we could’ve prevented it, and put us in harm’s way?

Cullen’s prose is sometimes too fiction-esque. Writing a non-fiction book like a fiction one, with dialogue boxes makes it look silly. The author wasn’t there, and if he were he could only have this exactness if he recorded it. I prefer writing as summary, since that’s the only thing you can do. Cullen’s prose is also precise enough to let it slide. He’s fantastic in choosing the right details. Physical descriptions never enter. Instead, it’s all about the people and what they did. I know a lot of people who say they can’t read a book without understanding the physical reality of it. Here, Cullen wrote a powerful story by only describing the people in it.

Some will write this off and say it’s just two white privileged white kids. Perhaps, but perhaps underneath every school shooting or underneath every crime rests a story like this. The difference is, we had a lot of cameras on the scene. Columbine is important because of what it tells us about us – that, yes, this will happen again. As social animals, we’ll always take Eric Harris above others. We’ll tell stories that make us feel good – our son is a martyr, they were just evil villains, they were just bullied kids. Cullen does have answers, they’re just incredibly pessimistic.

4 out of 5

Manic Street Preachers – Gold Against the Soul

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Many find this to be the awkward one, the child that doesn’t belong anywhere. It’s slotted between two punk-spirited albums full of anger and vitriol, often eschewing melody for lyrics. The Manics sounded on their previous album like they’re more interested in starting fires than playing rock music. The Holy Bible was a philosophy professor going off-topic and refusing to let his students go. What does this collection of depressed soft rock has to do with anything?

Maybe these two albums were actually the abnormalities, not this. If you listen to them closely, you’ll find the same despair lurking there. Generation Terrorists wasn’t a victorious, rabble-rousing album but a car on fire just waiting to crash. What fueled its anger was despair, the thought that no matter how loud they’ll play nothing will change. That’s why it sounds so different compared to other political music. As for The Holy Bible, beneath the philosophy and big words it had “This is Yesterday”, “Die in the Summertime” and “4st 7lb”. The only reason the lattermost doesn’t fit here is because it’s not melodic enough.

This is the definitive Manic Street Preachers. It’s not their best album and it suffers from filler, but it’s one that captures their essence. If you have to distill the Manics, they’re a melodic rock band with as much brains as they got despair. ‘Despair’ is the key word here, because every song drips with it.

Just look at the song titles. It’s one of those albums that can convince you of having a concept – “Life Becoming a Landslide”, “From Despair to Where”, even a title like “Roses in the Hospital” hints more at despair than anything else. Even when they sing about something other than despair, it comes to that. “La Tristessa Durera” – a contender for their best song – is about a veteran who’s been abandoned by society, forced to live with his memories alone. I wasn’t in combat duty, but I did have a tough role in the military and that song is dead-on in expressing the alienation, the loneliness, how everyone treats your service like everyone goes through it. To me, this song is a godsend, showing us someone understands the loneliness of a discharged soldier.

The music is more softer, more melodic. Some expressed astonishment at this, but were the Manics ever brutal? Even The Holy Bible has its melodic, almost poppy moments. They just play at mid-tempo, which brings their melodic chops to the surface. If it was odd that their later records were so melodic, it’s only because we wanted to forget this record and believe in the Manics as explosive rock-n-rollers.

They never were that. Gold Against the Soul is the only logical continuation of their debut. All its fury and politics and anger and telling to people to fuck off were a last attempt at recovering from despair. Here, they wake up, quite indifferently, to a reality they knew they couldn’t change. How else to react to a rebellion you knew was lost in the first place?

The album’s power comes not just from despair, but a unique hopelessness. There was never a good time according to this music. Everything was always bad, but they just happen to sing about it now. “Life Becoming a Landslide”, in one sentence, points to a past that’s the same as the present. A lot of depressive music wax sentimental about a fall from grace. The fall is a common element in our thinking in dark times. Nostalgia is a place to run to, knowing that if things used to be good then maybe they have a chance of improving. The darkest albums have these, since they describe some kind of deterioration. There’s none of that here, just a monotony of despair.

The mood and sound are strong, but the songs alone don’t reach these heights. The album especially falters after “Roses in the Hospital”, and the final tracks are bursts of noise that only help to keep the overall mood, but not add to it too much. It’s also reliant on its sound more than anything. It sounds great when played from beginning to end, but if you find yourself choosing an individual song the choices narrow. “Sleepflower” is fantastic as an opener only.

When it’s good, it’s brilliant. “La Tristessa Durera” is a masterpiece. “Roses in the Hospital” is the second highlight, a funky Alternative Dance number that turns its despair into a protest. It’s the one song that captures some of the debut’s anger with the cry of “We don’t want your fucking love”, but only to fall back to despair. Other songs need the album’s mood to stick, but they’re good enough – “Life Becoming a Landslide” is strangely pretty, “From Despair to Where” is okay with brilliant lyrics and “Drug Drug Druggy” captures some Hard Rock intensity.

It’s also the album where the Manics begun their career as some of Rock’s best lyricist. The poetic titles are enough, but there are countless quotables here – “My idea of love comes from/A childhood glimpse of pornography”, “I am just a fashion accessory”, “I feel like I’m missing pieces of sleep”. If you need words to give your thesis or your book a title, there’s plenty here.

So it’s not their best album, but it is their best album, but if I have to direct a beginner I’ll direct them to this. They have more explosive albums, angrier albums, smarter albums and catchier albums. No album captured their essence like this, a poetry full of despair and intelligence that happens to go along with Pop hooks and guitar noise. Start your exploration here.

What the hell does the album title mean, by the way?

4 roses in 5 hospitals

Haibane Renmei

haibane
Death and suicide are the ultimate questions. Anyone who writes them off as a first world problem doesn’t interact with human beings. Humans are the only organism that’s aware their life will end someday. We make a mostly conscious decision whether to live or die, and that includes people in war torn countries.

Death is so confusing though. Can you imagine the complete ending of all of your consciousness, all of the data inside your head? That’s why I can’t blame Haibene Renmei if its exploration of themes is fuzzy. If someone couldn’t climb Mt. Everest but still took a picture of a summit, that’s something.

The portrayal of common concepts such as purgatory, heaven and hell are slightly modified. They make a big psychological difference. Almost by accident, Haibane Renmei comes close to understanding the suicidal mind. This is a great achivement. Years of research and everyone is still stuck at ‘suicide is irrational’ and then wonder why people kill themselves.

The most radical approach of the show is how it overturns the communal argument against suicide. The communal argument is one of the few argument that are valid against suicide. It points out that since the person is a part of a community, the community owes them and the person owes the community. The result is symbiosis, a ‘no one gets left behind’ approach that forces people to comply but rewards for being a part of society.

Yet the community of Giles is different. It’s meant to allow people to tie up loose ends and exit painlessly and cleanly. At the same time, the person is obligated to contribute to this society in order to make their exit. If they won’t, they will be doomed to a long life of isolation – a common complaint of suicidal people.

This ‘painless clean exit’ is important. Notice how the characters whose view is negative have a different exit. They hate themselves and are filled with guilt. The only exit they can imagine is a violent one. Yet the source of their guilt is causing harm ot others, which is exactly what they’re doing. The harsh suicide causes a paradox. Both parties refuse to accept and forgive.

We also get a harsh view of the people left behind. Suicide prevention is, by nature, selfish. People who stop people from killing themselves only do it to benefit themselves. In a moment of suicide, all the good attributes that Rakka mentions are good ones. She can tell the person how they benefit the world, but that’s the only thing she experiences. She doesn’t experience how the suicidal person experiences themselves, the inner demons of guilt and self-hatred.

This is just one interpetation. In many places Haibene Renmei suffers from the same flaws of Texhnolyze and Lain. It’s rich in symbolism and clear signs of depth, but it’s vague. Even if suicide is made slightly obvious by the end, it’s still hard to connect every thread to it. Nevertheless, the slight vagueness isn’t a problem this time around. The anime is deeply humane.

Nothing in serenity or in the Fantasy genre prevents it from being character driven. It may be serene for most of its first half, but every character reacts to the situations in their unique way. Their personalities are established quickly and stay consistent. Their character design is according to their personalities.

ABe is mostly a dull designer and not good at creating the unique touches that make each face different. Here his style works for him. It’s still subtle and minimalist, but meaningful. Rakka’s messy brown hair fits her confused persona. Kana’s more muscular look fits with her rougher nature.

haibane1

The setting of the series also gives him more to do. While the color grey still dominates, there are contrast to it. It’s not the barrage of grimdarkness that was Texhnolyze. There is warmth in those greys. The peaceful setting and characters make the grey slightly gloomier, but it still looms just like death. The animation is sometimes too choppy, but such technical difficulties can be forgiven when the art is so beautiful.

ABe needed a balance between life an death in the art. Haibane Renmei is dominated by characters who are clearly alive and feel real. The events are often cheery and carefree. The contrast between the greys and the cheerful part isn’t obvious. It’s not a bad thing happening after a good one. Rather, the two opposites are right next to each other. We see the good times the Haibene experience, we see the kindness of the people next to the caging walls.

It’s so lifelike that despite the vagueness, it’s a powerful drama story. The emotions run deep with living characters and setting. The Fantasy setting is taken advantage of – it’s fantastical, clearly symbolic and not just a set of rules. There a lot of confusing anime which are confusing on purpose, just to look cool. If Haibene Renmei is confusing, it’s only because of how original it is. I hope to return to it soon with more to say.

4 angels out of 5

Manic Street Preachers – Generation Terrorists

generation-terrorists

In the gigantic discography of the Manics, this is the anomaly. Other albums have unique points – The Holy Bible is steeped in philosophical pessimism, Gold Against the Soul is almost funky, This is My Truth is the most melodic. However, they all paint a consistent picture. Manic Street Preachers are a band who plays traditional rock music without being traditional people. They play like they got Bowie levels of fame, but instead of hot, skinny dudes they’re a bunch of well-read guys who lived their whole life in a university and are despairing from the human condition.

Generation Terrorist does fit the narrative, but the Manics here are different people. Instead of despair, there’s anger. The lyrics are incoherent, mostly mumbling something about how much the world sucks and that we should leave this country. It hints at the despair of the later record, but anger is the keyword here. That’s why it still sounds so bizarre yet so familiar at the same time.

Is Glam Rock an angry genre? I don’t know, but listening to Queen or David Bowie points otherwise. In fact, a lot of classic rock paints a fairly nice image of reality. Sure, there’s heartbreak but the people playing it are always cool, always kind of weird but not really and will give great sex to your daughter. Velvet Underground are guilty of it, too. Their debut isn’t that scary anymore since, at the end, it’s just more praise for how cool New York is.

Although Rock ‘n’ Roll has always been painted as rebellious art, art that’s meant to shock and devastate and scare your parents, it hasn’t always been this way. Actually, maybe it is but nowadays who is scared of David Bowie or Queen? They paint a fairly nice picture of the world, rarely, if ever, addressing hostility or darkness. For all of their theatrics, they never sound like outsiders or oddballs or dangerous people. Rather, they just have above-average social skills and can afford to express their sexuality.

The Manics don’t sound like this. Generation Terrorists has zero political coherency because it’s so angry. “Love’s Sweet Exile”, “Slash N’ Burn” and “Repeat” blaze through, making a lot of noise and saying how much the world sucks. Sometimes it sounds like they’re trying to be happy or cool, but underneath it the anger and misanthropy is all the more apparent. “Love’s Sweet Exile” has a riff that sounds like an engine and lyrics about leaving the country. It’s more of a cry of distress, a song about loneliness rather than the joy of leaving your country.

The sound is Glam Rock, but there’s a roughness to it that fits the despair. The riff in “Love’s Sweet Exile” couldn’t appear in Ziggy Stardust. It’s too loud, too aggressive for it. “Another Invented Disease” is hilarious. The melody is victorious and the rhythm is danceable, but the lyrics – perhaps attacking psychiatry? – break the illusion. It’s another cry against something, protesting about how much something sucks. “Damn Dog” would be a fun number in other albums, but here Bradfield sounds in genuine panic and self-loathing when he screams “feed me!”.

At this stage of their career, Bradfield’s vocals are integral to their unique sound. He sometimes sounds like Bowie, but his voice is rougher. In some songs he just screams, such as “Repeat”. This edge in his voice never leaves him. He’s the star of the record. The other band members kick a lot of good riffs and rhythms, but he adds the hatred to “So Dead”. I can imagine these songs played by different Glam bands, and none of them would sound as good. No one could match the scream in the beginning of “Repeat”. Two versions of it appear here, and both sound great.

It’s a loud, angry album that states this from the band’s name to the title to the song titles to the lyrics. It’s so angry that you forget how accessible this material is. People shouldn’t be surprised the Manics became a Pop band. “Stay Beautiful”, “Love’s Sweet Exile” and “Another Invented Disease” have joyous melodies. They’re written like old-fashioned Glam Rock, back when we believed the world is a fine place. The contrast is all the more fascinating. It’s a bunch of victorious songs played with the demeanor of “Fuck everything, we need extinction”.

Sound is what drives the album though, not hooks. Then again, this album is 73 minutes long. The performance is good enough that the band doesn’t lose steam – “Crucifix Kiss” is played with as much bravado as “Stay Beautiful”, but the writing suffers. Few songs rise out, with many sound better in context than outside. It’s an album to put on, headbang or sing out your rage to and then put aside. The sound isn’t too varied either. Many songs are interchangeable, and most are just weaker re-writes of “Stay Beautiful” that are good enough for a few spins. As for their ballads, they still haven’t found their gorgeous melodies with “Little Baby Nothing” relying mainly on its lyrics, but “Motorcycle Emptiness” could go on forever. Along with “Spectators of Suicide”, we get songs that predict their most acclaimed albums.

Generation Terrorists sounds more important than good. No surprise the band bullshitted about selling millions of records in Senegal and then breaking up. There’s something iconic in this bravado and cocksure attitude mixed with misanthropy, along with despair creeping at the edges. More than any record, it sounds like the bridge between the happy-go-lucky silliness of the 70’s and the serious (sometimes overly so) demeanor that we have since the 90’s. Add “Stay Beautiful”, “Motorcycle Emptiness” and “Another Invented Disease” and you got yourself an album worth owning. They would only improve from this.

another 3 invented diseases out of 5

Willaim Styron – Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

darknessvisible
I shouldn’t be too harsh on William Styron. The book was published in 1989. Benatar hasn’t published his antinatalist manifesto yet. Alt-suicide-holiday probably didn’t exist back then. If it did, it was still fairly obscure. As Styron admits, suicide was a huge taboo at the time of writing. Many considered it shameful and tried to erase it out of the stories of people they admire. Pessimistic philosophy always existed, but Styron is oblivious to it.

Depression is harsh. It’s a disease and chemical imbalance has things to do with it. Yet Styron never confronts the question of whether his depression was right. Often you hear about how depression lies to you, but that’s the end of it. We’re hard-wired to believe depression is indeed a liar. Our genes don’t care about us so long as they can continue to exist. Love and affection also result in a chemical reaction, yet does that make them invalid? Not wanting sex with someone can easily be written off as a chemical imbalance. With the right chemicals, you can make anyone attracted to anyone.

Styron clearly suffered a lot. This is a slim volume and every line is dripping with pain and humility. Some snobs will scoff at Styron for feeling bad while winning awards, but depression’s grip on him is so strong. He’s aware of his privileges. He’s smart enough to complain about his state of mind, rather than how horrible it is when you win awards. Most of the book isn’t so much a recollection of events but salvaging a few thoughts from the depression era in order to understand it.

Yet how can you understand depression if you don’t address the perspectives it brings? How can you argue against depression and ‘defeat’ it, if you just write it off as a liar? Calling anyone a liar without proving it is barely an ad hominem. This is how it feels like when you attack someone’s depression. In fact, this is closer to gaslighting than helping.

Gaslighting is a technique of mental abuse that makes someone doubt their perception. By constantly insisting that the depressed person is wrong, that the world and their situation isn’t so bad you’re doing something remarkably close to this. If Jerry said his room is full of spiders but everyone else told him they don’t exist, yet he sees it, how will we feel? Of course he’ll feel even worse, since maybe his mind is so wrecked he’s seeing things that are not there. This idea is effective in horror stories, and the brilliant video game series Five Nights at Freddy’s uses it effectively.

He should know more than to write off depression so quickly. He admits constantly that depression is a mystery, one that we can know more about but never truly solve. The book’s best parts are when he details what depression feels like. At its worst, depression is a crippling disease. Yet it’s not a huge wound bleeding for everyone to see. It affects behavior and mood, which are dynamic and can’t be measured easily. The account of depression – the inability to get out of bed, anhedonia, the grinding hopelessness is addressed. Even as a fairly depressed (undiagnosed) individual whose worldview is pessimistic, Styron’s account was valueable in helping me understand it better. Many in my camp – the right-to-die supporters and antinatalists – view depression as another invented disease. Darkness Visible is a decent argument against it.

The last part of the book deals with recovery, and it’s also a disappointment. That’s not surprising, since recovering from depression also means defeating it in an argument. Styron didn’t address the philosophy behind the depression. What the pessimistic philosophers claim, which is often ignored, is that depression is a reaction. Just as you can’t blame someone for bleeding when they’re cut, you can’t blame someone for being depressed when their mother dies or they reach old age or lack of sex.

Unlike bleeding, what causes depression is varied and all over the place. Pro-choice suicide forums have people with all kinds of troubles – from people who have it all and are bored, to chronically ill to ugly outcasts. Your problems are right there in front of you. Listen to these people, listen to why exactly they’re so depressed. Styron is wise enough to admit that each person needs a different kind of treatment, but why is that? That’s because depression isn’t just a chemical reaction but a conclusion. The account of recovery is empty since either Styron couldn’t understand why he was depressed. Dependency takes most of the blame, but the death of his mother and old age get mentioned too.

If only he delved deeper into what these things mean. Things don’t just make us sad – that much he knows. Even sadness can be hard to communicate since it affects us differently. Sometimes it gives us a drive to fight, sometimes it makes us hate someone or something or another. Sometimes it makes everything around it seem pointless. There will never be enough words. We will never reach complete understanding of our anguish and sadness and all the other negative emotions, but we must try.

I forgive Styron, because his depression was clearly severe. Every lines feels like he went through great pains just to write it. Maybe his pain was too great for him to stare into the abyss. We’re wired for pleasure, so it’s reasonable for Styron to want more to escape his depression than confront its meaning. It’s enjoyable enough and worthwhile, but every mental disease deserves a much better book for its defining literary work. I hope writing this helped Styron, but it won’t contribute much to our understanding of suicide, depression and pessimism.

3 awards out of 5