All That Remains – Madness

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At the same time, this album both signifies All That Remains as a talented rock band who broke away from their genre and copycats who have no future besides spewing typical, Serious Rock cliches. Perhaps the album title is fitting, but that would mean the album is actually interesting. It isn’t.

Since I’m writing about it, let’s try to find something fun to say about this. All That Remains aren’t a bad band. Recently they abandoned Metalcore and just did whatever they wanted, so you got songs like “A War You Cannot Win”, “True-Kvlt-Metal” and “This Probably Won’t End Well”. None of these songs was particulalry original, but they were all fantastic. The band slammed. They sung their melodies with conviction, each part stood on its own while connected to everything else. Melodic parts didn’t exist to contrast the heavy parts, but to co-exist together. The band seemed quite content to be in their place. How else to explain the joy of “True-Kvlt Metal”, which had such victorious spite or “War” where they replace Lostprophets in making victorious rock? This new freedom allowed “End Well” to sound so vulnerable.

They still sound free. Across the first four tracks, there’s a roaring Metalcore track with no melodies and all breakdowns. Then they switch to an ordinary combination of their previous styles, while “If I’m Honest” – one of the few good things here – moves to a cocky Country rock thing. It’s impressive how each song sounds distinct, how the band throw themselves at the ideas and prevent the song from blurring into one another. Each has their obvious place and it’s exactly what I expect from a band this far into their career.

Focusing on song ideas never lets up. Even in their ballads, “Back To You” is intimate, quite and low-key whereas “Far From Home” is huge. Normally I’d say this is the ideal place for every old rock band to be. My description sure say the band is the opposite of washed up, and this is more varied than A War You Cannot Win. Yet it’s far worse, and if that one signaled the band finding their purpose, this sees them losing it.

It’s not the old Rockist case of being too varied. The best songs here – “If I’m Honest” and “The Thunder Rolls” stray the most from the genre. The problem is that the band has no good songs, only good ideas. I’m not sure whether it’s more funny or more sad how hard they try in “Safe House” yet completely miss the point. When the breakdown chorus arrives, it needs something more vulgar, more ridiculous than “Welcome to my safe/Do you feel safe now”. Where’s the swearing? Where’s the explicit bragging? Plus, the screaming is closer to low Death Metal growls than Hardcore Punk shouting. We all know that nothing makes the crowd want to shout along more than growls you can’t understand. Every metalcore band improves once they adopt intelligble screams. The song becomes an exercise in seriousness, a desperate attempt to prove these guys aren’t silly partygoers like Five Finger Death Punch.

It gets worse from there. The title-track is about how politics is pretty bad. You can tell by the music video. Although there’s a decent melody buried there, the chorus is a reptition of its title with zero melody or rhythm or swagger. Again, it’s very serious as if that makes for depth. More hilarious is their attempt at seriousness at all. No one takes this type of music seriously. Its essence is theatrics, being overblown and exaggerating emotions because we can. “Far From Home” misses that because it doesn’t go all the way with textures to capture the beauty of always being close to home. Singing with a serious tone is supposedly enough, but it isn’t.

Worse, there is no purpose in thos experiments. When they made “War” or “Kvlt”, the band sounded like they were really into being cocky and telling everyone to fuck off. Finally they sounded like they found something to be passionate over, something more than merely making music. The only song that captures this sense of purpose is “If I’m Honest” and that’s only because it’s the same “I’m a bad motherfucker” narrative, only with acoustic guitars. Although I appreciate the emotions behind “River City”, the good ideas are a sacrifice for a ‘deep and serious’ image.

Many of the songs have quite a killer sound, but the problem is in the lyrics. A kind of a dissonance appears. You want to mosh and party, but all you can conjure in your hand is the band scowling on stage. Whoever thought of the lyrics for “Trust and Believe” should stop using the English language. The song has a great melody with screaming vocals, but the lyrics are too serious. If your idea of fun is shouting the words “trust and believe” – which are already quite trite in rock music – you need medication. The victorious swagger of past albums is gone.

Only two songs stick out and are worthwhile. “If I’m Honest” has been mentioned already. It’s a mid-tempo acoustic rocker that brings back the cockiness of old records. Another highlight is the closer “The Thunder Rolls”, which is a Garth Brooks cover. Yeah, I didn’t see that either but the band does throw themselves with conviction at their ideas, even if their pointless. So the cover ends up hinting that maybe the band should borrow more from Country. Everyone in the song pushes themselves further – you get atmospheric solos and Phil sounding like he’s drinking his last beer watching Megaton blowing up. Perhaps in a good day “Back To You” will also work, its low-key and warm sound is a refreshment after the over-seriousness of everything else.

The band still sounds capable and they play everything with passion, but there is no point to this music, nothing to unify it besides telling you these guys are serious. In an interview they said they’ll go in a more electronic direction but nothing like that is here. It’s an album of cowardice, of trying new ideas but never taking them to the extreme and keeping the serious facade. “Safe House” needed bass wobbles. “Madness” needed more melody, more texture. Oh well, better luck next time.

15. trust out of 5 believe

Willaim Styron – Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

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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

Network (1976)

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Someone decided to take all the literature by Neil Postman and Jerry Mender and make a film out of it. Countless of films and works about technology are praised for ‘staying relevant’. It’s a vague statement. A lot of works remain relevant because many themes are universal. Network is still relevant because it doesn’t actually criticize television, but viral content.

Content becomes viral when it gets people talking. Viral content has built-in emotional appeal. It’s immediate, doesn’t demand too much of us and is escapist. It makes us either mad as hell, or forget that we should be mad as hell.

There was a story about a girl who became an ‘advice animal’, and how this disabled person was exploited for cheap laughs. It’s no different than what the network, or even the world does to Howard Beale. People get their entertainment and their release, so they don’t care that the person on TV clearly needs some help. Sometimes the person has to exploit themselves on TV in order to get ahead. Budd Dywer exploited the viral nature of suicide on TV for his own gain.

Some viral content may seem like it has a noble purpose, but it is all just emotional manipulation. Beale rants and raves about a deal with the CCA. Sure, it got the people to send telegrams to the white house but it did more harm than good. That’s because the people didn’t care about learning or understanding. Viral charities give us a simple cause – an evil corporation, a terrible disease – and encourage us to do something simple to solve it. Problems aren’t just solved by pouring ice on ourselves, and spamming the government with uninformed telegrams only leads them the wrong way.

Of course, there’s great irony in the fact this is a film that criticizes television. A book called Nation of Rebels deals with this situation. Often, ideas are co-opted by the same groups the idea fights against. Television destroys or makes presidents, but both are good for them. Criticizing television can also make for great TV, because every idea can be oversimplified.

This is what’s so scary about the medium and why Jerry Mender doesn’t sound so irrational in his book. No idea is too pure that it can’t be simplified, commodified and stripped of its depth. Both fear and sedation make for great television. Beale hates television, but the institution is so strong that it swallowed him. Instead of fighting television, he made it stronger by criticizing it on television. Instead of people turning off their sets like Beale tells them so, they keep watching to hear his rants against television.

It’s the format that simplifies those ideas. When watching TV, a video of terrorist shooting up the place is more attention-grabbing than their background. These various types of content – terrorists, funny videos, weather are all smashed together with no rhyme or reason. Neil Postman pointed out the absurdity of this, how news is more entertainment than informative.

The information is supplied by beautiful or charismatic people. The presenters choose the content based on what will grab the most attention. The show jumps from one topic to the next with no connection, complete with cool transitions.

While the film doesn’t elaborate too much on the nature of profit (besides a slightly cheesy monologue), it does presents how it harms the news. The purpose of news may be to inform people about the world, but the network needs money. News shows are in competition with all other shows. The only way to compete is create viral content. Diana cares more about viral content for that reason, a story that will grab people’s attention rather than inform them.

It’s a dark film, but not a grimdark one. What makes it so dark aren’t the people but the ideas. Jensen’s monologue is a perfect example of that. It should’ve been a weakness since it lays out an idea, rather than show it. However, it’s both written well and helps the film focus on its purpose. It’s not a story of cruel people being cruel to innocent ones. Rather, it’s how certain ideas – profit, viral content – are so tempting, and make us into cruel people. As Schumacher criticizes Diana, he points out the specific thing that turns her into a profit-chaser. Beale is just as guilty as everyone in the network, since he goes along with his exploitation.

The darkness of the film isn’t like real news. Its purpose isn’t to shock the audience but make them understand. Diana’s main role is to warn us of the appeal of viral news. If it’s hard to watch, it’s only because we see ourselves in Diana. Such a film isn’t misanthropic. It’s concerned about humanity and its nature, so it tries to show us its flaws in-depth rather than just make us hate them.

It does suffer from being very obvious. It has a clear mission statement and never for a second it pretends it’s realistic. People give off long, meanigful monologues that only happen in online communication. The balance is a little off, since it often wants to be and then satirical and then dramatic. Eventually though it settles on being exaggerated instead of realism. This way the writers take advantage of their skill. Even if the monologues are obvious, they’re beautifully written. Jensen’s monologue doesn’t make us hate him, but persuades us.

Network is a brilliant film. It may not have a stylistic quirk to make it viral, but then again the purpose is exist is to criticize the nature of viral content. The only hooks it has are satirical and a few good jokes. It’s a well-written, thrilling film that’s emotionally engrossing and explores its subject matter to the limit. People who think entertainment and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive clearly haven’t watched this. Besides being a little obvious in places, it’s a brilliant film.

4.5 messages out of 5 mediums