Kuuchu Burnako (Flying Trapeze)

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Often you’ll hear how being unique isn’t enough to make a good anime. That’s not entirely true, since being unique is overall a good trait. Why would you want to sit in front of a screen, watching the same thing over and over? What these people do get right is that mere uniqueness isn’t enough. Although in the end, all great works of art are unique and highly original, not all original works are great works. That’s because true greatness which comes from true uniqueness isn’t just a unique art style or a cool storytelling method, but a thematic depth.

All the problems with this anime are in this sector. It’s eccentric and utterly bizarre. Better anime don’t break their conventions like this, but in the end it’s all just quirks and a unique style that don’t reach any profound conclusion. As an aesthetic experience, it’s awesome with how wacky it is. As for its narrative, it’s just there.

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The narrative is fairly empty and the symbols, while cool, don’t mean anything. Having a psychiatrist and people with psychological disorders isn’t an automatic ticket for actual character psychology. The anime mistakes exaggeration for madness, like a 16-year-old kid who thinks a Facebook cover photo with blood shows how ‘crazy’ they are.

The anime deals with the old notion of ‘crazy’, something that I think the mental health institutions abandoned even before Thomas Szasz took an axe to their heads. Here characters don’t struggle daily with a disorder. The problem isn’t present in every fabric of their existence but, rather, explodes out of nowhere. Most of these characters lead normal lives until something triggers them.

Now, it’s true that a lot of mentally ill people function day-to-day, interact with people and buy eggplants without causing a massacre. Notice how their normality is only something we experience. They don’t. Someone who is suicidal (A major problem that the series oddly avoids) is always suicidal. Some days it hurts less, some days it hurts more. However, the normality is only an external thing.

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Inside, everything pushes him towards death. For the depressed person, every thing demands extra effort and the question of ‘why go on?’ is always present. That’s why mental illness is such a problematic thing and a lot of philosophers had to step in to redefine it. Mental illness is not a wound, it’s not a specific area of the body we can target and diagnose and seperate. Mental illness is an integral part of being. Depression isn’t a distortion of reality but a part of someone’s personal reality.

The characters here aren’t even reduced to their mental illness. They’re reduced to their onsets. Although we see them do ordinary stuff like jobs and family, we rarely get insight into how they exist with this. It’s all just build-up until the dude panics over not being sure if the stove is on. This prevents the show from having any serious psychology. In order for it to be truly psychological, it needs to present these people as whole human beings and it needs to show how the illness relates to the whole.

In truth, these aren’t really characters. Their disorder defines them more than anything. Most of the differences between them comes from that. The show belongs to the tradition of a main character who’s a vessel for other stories. In general these type of anime have a cool style and an empty narrative. It’s not just because there is no major conclusion – although it tries for something sappy like how we need to listen to others. Their problems are also very illness-orientated.

If mental illness was so exaggerated and obvious, we would’ve had an easier time dealing with it. We don’t. The problems these characters face tend to be only their illness. How it relates to other problems is unclear. Sure, it disrupts their day-to-day life but that’s not enough. How does it affect sexuality, social interactions, worldviews? The series loves to portray extras as cardboard, but in truth no one is cardboard for people. Our ilness and these passerbys are part of our lives. The anime treats mental problems like an obvious wound.

It doesn’t help that most of the stories involve OCD. I’m sure it’s a common disorder, but where’s schizophrenia, depression, bipolar? Perhaps because OCD is far easier to exaggerate. It has onsets, things that are easy to transmit visually. Depression is harder since depression is everywhere, showing itself in every action and relates to a person’s inner life. You have to show a worldview in order to portray depression. That’s why its status as an illness is such a problematic issue. Eventually, all these people with OCD blur into one another. The only thing that changes is how it works.

When a different illness comes, they fail to show its psychology. A person’s narcissism ends up being monotonous. The big problem isn’t narcissism, but a dude who can’t stop smiling. The whole agony of living in the past, in glory days that are never to return and trying desperately to re-create them isn’t there. Rather, it’s just a person repeating his shtick over and over. It’s an excellent example of how they take a serious issue and reduce it to a single symbol, stripping it of any depth.

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The surrealistic, bizarre art and storytelling also leads to an air of self-satisfaction. It’s not as bad as it looks from the outside, but it’s there. Nothing is particularly funny about these jokes, since they don’t point to any absurdity and hardly a taboo. So the psychiatrist gets off on vitamin shots. That’s kind of odd and amusing, but not out of place. Early on the anime establishes how wacky it is with these colors, so this is fairly ordinary. Irabu is also not really funny, just quirky and high-pitched. There’s also a sexy nurse who thankfully has little screen time. Her role is mainly to inform the viewer that the makers are totally fine with ultra-sexy yet placid women, some pathetic symbol of ‘sexual strength’. I don’t know. Nothing about her is interesting, including breaking into live-action. Overall, the series sets itself up as weird, but can’t ever up the weirdness.

It’s not all bad though. In fact, in its format, the anime is quite excellent. It’s the old format of a single main character whose a narrative device to show the lives of various characters, like Kino’s Journey or Mushishi and it does it so much better.

First off, merely dealing with mental disorders – an integral part of the experience of being – gives these stories a more emotional, personal angle. Already here it lifts itself up above the aforementioned anime. Unlike them, there is some sort of humanity here. It’s exaggerated, caricature-esque and shallow but it exists. The main driving symbol has a far more personal nature so the stories are by their nature more emotionally engrossing. The distance that harmed Mushishi is mostly absent.

There’s also concern and empathy for these characters. For all its exaggeration, the series has some awareness that underneath it all there should be humanity. The tone is not mocking, something that the aesthetics and the ultrasexy nurse hint at. Rather, it’s empathetic towards these little lost humans and their madness. Episodes don’t end with a complete return to normality, but with a way to cope with the madness.

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It’s this vibe and demeanor that prevents the anime from being only an exercise in aesthetics. There is a clear meaning underneath some of these symbols, like how cardboard-like people merely means these aren’t important characters. The mental conditions are caricatures, but at least they make sense – extreme worry is a problem. Even if the series isolates these parts, it does fit with the style. In a way, the series never pretends to actually be psychological. From the start it’s concerned more with flash than substance, but it has just enough substance and humanity to prevent it from being vapid.

As for its aesthetics though, they’re fantastic. It’s true there isn’t an anime quite like this one. You might compare its surreal style to Tatami Galaxy, but that one had an overbearing, total aesthetic. Here they take a realistic art style and utterly distort it, creating a weird clash of realism and cartoon. The storytelling is knowingly expressive, so much so that sometimes things don’t have meaning. There are polka dots everywhere, but then again why not? It’s self-awareness which doesn’t try to be clever. Knowing that none of it is real, they let themselves go with wacky, memorable images. It’s a style weird enough to hold on for 12 episodes even if there isn’t much variety among them.

Utterly bizarre and original, yet its lack of depth prevent it from being one of the greats. It had the premise and the aesthetic boldness, but it’s also satisfied in just being fun. Often we talk about how ‘just fun’ shows need to be unoriginal, yet this anime demonstrates you can have fun without aiming too high. Set expectations about how mind-blowing this is, and you’ll be disappointed. This is just another in the long line of episodic anime with a wide cast, but its one-of-a-kind style breathes life to the format.

3 crazies out of 5

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Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

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It’s amazing how you can both capture a sound perfectly and have no idea what to do with it. The problem with Humbug isn’t that it’s a departure. They didn’t sounded too excited about the Dance-Punk sound in the previous album anyway. The problem isn’t necessarily the lack of hooks because plenty of records can survive without hooks.

The problem is they’re playing a form of psychedelia that relies on melodies. Psychedelic music is often melodic and accessible. It uses weird sounds along with an easy melody to make something both weird and accessible. That’s why “Tomorrow Never Knows” is so popular (or at least covers of it).

This is not the Heavy Psych that blasts off to outer space. It’s closer to “Planet Caravan” and Monster Magnet’s ballads. These songs were brilliant because their sound enchanted already great melodies. “Planet Caravan” would’ve been nothing if the melody wasn’t sound so close to the lonely Bluegrass style.

“Crying Lightning” is the best song here for that reason. It’s one of the few here that actually has a chorus. The fact that it progresses and reaches a conclusion is just a bonus. It has a catchy melody that benefits from the sound. Turner drops words like ‘twisted and deranged’ which are perfect for this music.

Everything else, however, tries too hard to be ominious. The band is obsessed with beeing spooky. Turner stopped being a sex-mad smug asshole. Maybe it has something to do with erectile dysfunction. On “My Propeller”, he lets us know in the climatic bridge that he can’t get hard. Such issues affect a man, especially one who bragged about having sex with girls he doesn’t like.

That song sums up the album well. It has no chorus. The chorus has Turner whispering “have a spin of my propeller” not in a sexy manner. It’s as if he’s standing behind your back in a haunted house. It sounds pathetic because it’s such an obvious technique to make you look scary.

Or maybe it’s actually about drugs. That’s a better explanation of the rest of the songs. They sound druggy in a good way. The guitar licks and rolling drums in that sound like a calm before the storm. They can’t keep the atmosphere for long. It’s not even good enough for the song which saved by its catchy climax.

There are other tricks, many of them impressive and none of them are enough. “Pretty Visitors” has tempos shifts and thudding drums that are coming after you. The sound effects in “Secret Door” are supposed to fit the title, but too bad the melody is uninspired. Turner doesn’t even sound like he’s singing an actual melody but just mumbles things.

The sound fails mainly because it doesn’t serve the songs. The end of “My Propeller” and “Crying Lightning” would sound much worse in any other sound. Instead of sounding seductive, Turner sounds like a desperate and perhaps dangerous addict on the latter song.

On all the other songs, it just makes for a ‘huh, that’s cool’ reaction. They sound like demos, ideas that are worth attempting but are so new to the band that they’re only worthwhile for a B-Side compilation. The lack of confidence isn’t just because the band moved from the loud Dance-Punk. It’s because they have no idea what to do with the sound, even if it sounds cool.

Smack in the middle of this album you get the gorgeous “Cornerstone”. It’s a ballad that’s closer to “505”. The band has a fuzzy relationship with ballads. Turner is too arrogant to get them right but when they get it, they made brilliant ones. “Cornerstone” is one of those. It’s sad that this song got buried here. “Crying Lightning” at least makes everything around it worth attempting. “Cornerstone” should’ve been on the better next album.

It’s an interesting album and a stepping stone for the band. Their later albums proved they still got it in them and they were just confused. I’m sure this sounded worse when it came out. Albums like these are either a death sentence or a stepping stone to a new era. The Monkeys haven’t outdone their debut (and probably never will), but this sounds much better in retrospect, when you know they got over this confusion.

2.5 cornerstones out of 5

Coldplay – Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

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Coldplay never sounded big. Every time they made something that sounded big and ambitious, it was a failure. When they stuck to simplicity, they were pretty good. They’re the biggest rock band currently, but they’re the antithesis of that. That difference is how “The Scientist” is brilliant and “Fix You” is atrocious, despite being both ballads.

What’s shocking about Viva La Vida is not that it’s experimental. There have been wilder mainstream albums. What’s shocking is how it works while being the opposite of what made Coldplay good. This isn’t a band that’s working on their strengths, but improving on their weaknesses.

You wouldn’t know it by the first title track. It’s awful. Using strings instead of guitars doesn’t hide an annoying melody. It feels like they couldn’t care less about whether the melody is nice to the ear. Everything about it tries to be big and friendly for sport stadiums. If it had guitars and drums it’d replace “We Are Champions”. A Cazy Frog remix is probably in the works.

This is why “Clocks” was awful, and any other big Coldplay song. They were only about size and never did anything else. Here, Coldplay are doing something other than sounding important. Even “42”, whose beginning is one of Coldplay’s worse moments (Trite lyrics and musical backing that sounds like a demo from X&Y), has a constantly-changing structure. The song is still a failure, but it’s an interesting one that adds more to the album than it takes from.

Other experiments are far more succesful. “Yes” is a sex song which further proves that Marin can be a great vocalist and when he puts the falsetto away. The falsetto was often what made the difference between good and bad Coldplay songs. Here, it’s thrown away most of the time.

Since there is a clearer emotional core to these songs, Martin chooses the correct singing more often than not. A sexually-charged, but still gloomy song about sex fits perfectly with the lower register. When Martin delivers pieces of wisdom we all know on “Lost!”, he remains calm. We all know that losing doesn’t mean you’re lost, and it’s good that Martin doesn’t pretend otherwise. The calm singing style gives an air of friendliness to the song. It makes it sound intimate like “Shiver” despite the the drums banging along.

The album’s apex is in the last three songs. They all justify Coldplay’s popularity. “Strawberry Swing”‘s flirting with psychedelia are forgettable compared to the pure bliss of it. The second title track is everything “Viva La Vida” wanted to be. It’s huge, hopeful but beautiful. It’s not just the progressive structure that helps, but that then knows how to handle every part. When the song goes loud Martin doesn’t sound like he’s singing in a huge stadium. He sounds like he’s re-discovering hope after the gloom of “Violet Hill”. As for that one, it’s Coldplay’s most aggressive song so far. Oddly, it works and it sounds heavy.

Some have pointed out how the album isn’t very experimental if you listen to something other than the Top 40 radio. It’s true. There are even mainstream artists who made weirder albums, like Linkin Park. Nothing here sounds like a new vision, nothing like “Sail” or “Radioactive”.

That’s okay, because the focus isn’t on pushing the sound further. Coldplay are dominated by their melodies. Everything they do exists to serve the melodies and drive them, never the opposite. The ideas here are only new for Coldplay, but they make better work of the melodies than if the band chose their ordinary set-up. The contrast between the soothing singing and drums of “Lost!” makes it work. The psychedelic vibe in “Strawberry Swing” are better to express its bliss rather than some pianos and guitars. This focus helps even the songs whose melodies are weak. “Lovers in Japan” would’ve been a B-Side if it wasn’t for its energetic instrumental.

It’s no wonder Coldplay took a more electronic route after this. It’s a great album, but the band sounds like they exhausted this style of Artsy Stadium Rock here. Then again, I thought the same when I listened to X&Y. Even if you don’t take into account that Coldplay never sounded capable of making this album, it’s still great. It’s full of great songs with great melodies and structures that go somewhere, rather than just repeat what came before. The skeptics have a few points, but here they’re wrong.

3.5 violet hills out of 5

The Doors – The Doors

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I wonder if people who think ‘music isn’t as good as it used to be’ are taking the same drugs the Doors were into. You don’t have to go too far into modern times for this to sound dated. A year after this came out Iron Butterfly dropped “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. It was the same year the famous version of “Just Dropped In” was released. How did this stick in people’s consciousness?

I can understand why, but it’s not a flattering reason. The Doors sound like the protoypical ‘classic rock’ album. It’s a little loud, it has sex in it and some psychedelia to give it an edge. It has some long songs and it sounds very important. That’s the difference between “Light My Fire” and that Iron Butterfly song. Iron Butterfly just got a banging bassline and rode for 17 minutes. The Doors were sure they discovered new frontiers.

Maybe they did back then. The record has some charm in how big it is and how much it thinks of itself. Every song is deliberate, revolving a clear idea. The sequencing makes perfect sense. The first is a fast-paced rocker. The second is a macho pick-up-women song. The third is a weirder psychedelic ballad. The band wisely chooses these songs to introduce people to basics. “Light My Fire” comes later, after you’re used to the band to show you they can be weird.

Of course, ‘weird’ back then meant long songs and free improvisation. “Light My Fire” just sounds like an ordinary rock song with a jamming session. It works there because finally the band lets out all the energy they have. Add an extra minute or so to that section and the song wouldn’t be any worse.

The difference between that song and everything else is that it’s less caught up in making a statement. Compare it to “The End” (which sounded way better when I saw Apocalypse Now). “The End” doesn’t justify its length. The band tries hard to let you know this is the climatic ending with drum rolls, a serious atmosphere and Jim Morrison telling you it’s the end. The result is just showing off, but no energy or fun or substance. On “Light My Fire”, they just bang their instruments.

The album is part of the era before Rock was divorced from its rock influence. It’s no wonder artists were so confused. Only later artists like Black Sabbath and Five Horse Johnson knew how Blues worked and combined it with loud guitars. The band thinks being theatrical equals to being bluesy. The cultural appropriation debate is pretty stupid, but not as “Back Door Man”. It’s better than Led Zeppelin’s attempts, but it sounds the guys heard some Blues on the radio and made a song based on a few parts.

Even at their best, it’s just serviceable classic rock to play in bars so no one would get offended. There’s nothing really annoying about “Soul Kitchen” or “Break On Through”. They’re pretty catchy and fun, but they don’t have that attitude that made “Just Dropped In” so successful.

Psychedelic Rock can work in two ways. Either the band sounds like they’re off in another dimension, or that they make a melodic, pleasant song with weird sounds. The Doors only try the former on “The End” and “End of the Night”. Neither of them are weird enough, but the latter is good enough to make it the blueprint for the next album. When they try the other method, they make some pleasant music but nothing like the Zombies or Monster Magnet or “Planet Caravan”. The worst are the songs where their sense of self-importance comes through. “Take It As It Comes” is the sort of Classic Rock crap that ignorant listeners think is ‘meaningful’.

I heard that Morrison’s lyrics are supposed to be a big deal. I hear nothing attention-grabbing. No lyrics are bad or good. What exactly is a soul kitchen? I don’t know, but the song doesn’t make me care to find out. It’s easy to assume Morrison just wants to have sex with that woman. Weird lyrics that don’t make sense are a lot of fun. Even if the lyrics were moronic, I would’ve enjoyed them. Morrison’s lyrics are just various ways to tell a woman he wants sex without the vulgarity. It’s less impressive on record.

There are some fun songs here, but what’s the point? The psychedelic parts are rudimentary and you’re better off with their next album, or any of Monster Magnet’s psychedelic works. If you enjoyed the bluesy stuff here, check their own L.A. Woman or Black Sabbath. The Doors sound excited here. It does make these ideas sound new, but everyone – including the band – improved on this.

2 doors out of 5

Clutch – Psychic Warfare

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Clutch are, what, 24 years old now?

That’s a very old age in Rock & Roll, especially when your music is about driving rock. Most bands burn out or get tired of rocking. They take the stage, get the girls and lose the frustration that makes for good loud music. Even the best turn artistic. Monster Magnet rediscovered Psychedelia and Local H flirted with Progressive Rock as soon as their started moving units.

Clutch never had that artistic bent. They were all about riffs and catchy hooks. You could lump them up other dumb Hard Rock like Drowning Pool and Nickelback. The only difference between them and Clutch is that Clutch had better hooks and and outsider’s perspective.

Clutch were outsiders, and still were. For all of their rocking and rolling, they had weird lyrics that were poetic as they made little sense. Neil isn’t a big rock star out for the sex and money. He’s a weirdo who likes turning up his weirdness loud.

That makes them an almost perfect band. Combine the hooks with the odd lyrics, and they sound more badass than anyone else. This also gave them a glass ceiling. They were so focused on just kicking rock songs that they will never make a masterpiece. If there was some hope in the past they might knock one out, it’s all gone on Psychic Warfare.

It’s a confusing album that will only make sense depending on what comes after. It’s either the sound of a band giving up and not even trying to make a “Mice and Gods”, or it’s the sound of a band being comfortable in their place and just having fun.

The first tracks rock hard and got the energy, but none of the hooks. They’re driven by sound with the melodies as an afterthought. “X-Ray Visions” isn’t sure what the melody for the hook is. If it wasn’t for Neil’s brilliant lyrics and charisma, the song would’ve been boring to death. “A Quick Death in Texas” is the only chorus that sticks, and would’ve been just another good song on Robot Hive/Exodus.

Clutch may be giving up, but every song is performed with enthusiasm. Clutch sound happy in their place. Neil sounds like he’s happy to spit big words like ‘dynamite’ and ‘telekenetic’ on “X-Ray Visions”. In another band’s hands, it would run out of steam in 30 seconds.

The second best song here is “Noble Savage”, and it’s where the band (again) declares how rock and roll is their life. It doesn’t have a melody, but the band sounds so energized that it’s convincing. Neil might be 43 years, but no one sounds better than him at capturing the appeal of rock and roll. It’s about having fun and letting out your weirdness. Other bands try to convince you they’re having fun by singing about how much sex they have. Neil has a wide-eyed approach that makes “Decapitation Blues” sound more fun than them. That one is about neck damage from headbanging.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Clutch are more interesting in performing live than writing songs. These songs are more about loudness and energy than melody. They’ve been rocking weird for 24 years. How much left do they have to say? Still, if they perform these songs with the energy it promises it means Clutch should keep going. If it’s a sign of things to come though, maybe they should stop. They’re still a melodic rock band, and a good live show is hard to make of bad songs nobody wanted to write.

3 noble savages out of 5