28 February 2008

Album of the Week: Eluvium - An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death (2004)

This weeks album is rather a change of pace from weeks past. Eluvium is the brainchild of Matthew Cooper, a multi-talented composer and musician. The Eluvium discography contains a variety of different sounds, from ambient post-rock to neoclassical piano suites. An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death, released in 2004, falls firmly within the latter category.

The album is a relatively brief affair, clocking in at less than a half hour, but (as the platitude goes) good things often come in small packages. The music here is extremely peaceful, with an atmosphere that seems to drift back and forth between sadness and joy. Every track on the album is solid (with the possible exception of "Nepenthe," which seems to grate on my nerves somewhat), but the odd-numbered tracks, in a peculiar coincidence, seem to be a bit better.

The first track, "An Accidental Memory," introduces the album, and reels the listener in with its stirring melody. From there the album moves on to "Genius and Thieves," which maintains the atmosphere established by the first track with its playful yet somewhat sad tune. "Perfect Neglect in a Field of Statues," one of the best pieces on the album is next, followed by "Nepenthe" which, though I don't enjoy it as much as it's predecessor or it's follower, still maintains the atmospheric flow. "In a Sense," though brief, is an effective, moving composition, indeed one of the best on the album. The longest track is next, entitled "The Well-Meaning Professor." It may also be the most dramatic song, with a more forceful melody. Finally, "An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death" brings the album to a satisfying end, reviving the melody of the introductory track and expanding it into an even more stirring theme. Indeed, this last song may be the best of the lot.

An Accidental Memory in the Case of Death is an album at once relaxing and moving. Listening to it brings to my mind the image of a room with white walls and a an exquisitely polished hardwood floor. One of the walls is dominated by a large bay window, which looks out to a cloudy sky. In the center of the room stands a piano, the source of the music, music so evocative as to be capable of conjuring up such a vivid image. It's just that good.

25 February 2008

Anita Page and the Ideal Screen Type

Was Anita Page the perfect movie star? Benito Mussolini certainly thought so. We all know by now where my loyalties lie, but this graph nevertheless makes a compelling argument. Not that I need any convincing that Miss Page was quite the looker in her day, mind you. On the other hand, it does remind me of some strange sort of eugenics. While we're on the subject of genes, Anita must have good ones, as she is still alive today at the ripe old age of 97.

In any event, it's rather a good thing that Anita never took up Mussolini on his offer of marriage. Just look at what happened to Clara Petacci.

Just so credit is given where credit is due, the above image was originally found here. I cropped it a bit, that I might save some space.

24 February 2008

The Women (1939)

Few movies are as true to their titles as is The Women. There's not a Y chromosome in the entire film. Not that I minded terribly; men can be very annoying, and I found myself glad to be rid of them while watching this movie.

The Women follows the story of socialite Mary Haines, whose husband, unbeknown to her, has been unfaithful to his wife (to put it blithely), seeing perfume saleswoman Crystal Allen on the side. Hilarity ensues as, thanks to a loose-lipped manicurist, Mary learns of her husbands extracurricular activity, and files for a divorce. Mary's so called friends, among them the odious Sylvia Fowler, delight in her downfall, wretched gossips that they are. Of course, this being 1939, everything works out in the end, with everyone getting their just desserts.

Mary Haines is played by Norma Shearer, who gives an admirable and sympathetic performance of the wronged wife. Joan Crawford plays Crystal, the gold-digging homewrecker par excellence, and she turns in quite a performance (although her hairdresser, it must be said, deserves a traitor's death. Joan sports a rather unflattering coiffure throughout the flick, sad to say). The two work extremely well as rivals in the film, since they were fierce studio rivals at MGM in the 1930s, and probably hated each other. Seriously, there's a cat fight that I'd pay good money to see.

The character I really loathed (as I no doubt was supposed to) was Sylvia Fowler, played well by Rosalind Russel. Russel does a fine job of being a manipulative, obnoxious, conniving shrew--I wanted to backhand Mrs. Fowler no fewer than a half-dozen times.

The film is in black and white, with the exception of a Technicolor fashion show, apparently inserted into the movie with the sole purpose of showing off the haute couture of costume designer Adrian. This, I thought, was a bit much, and I can understand why the sequence isn't always included in showings of The Women. On the other hand, it was enjoyable to see some of the incredibly gaudy outfits, some of which I can't possibly imagine any respectable woman wearing, even back in the day. Of course, The Women was produced on the even of the 1940s, and I find 40s styles in many ways atrocious, especially when it comes to women's hairstyles.

As a personal note, I was glad to see Dorothy Sebastian back on screen, even if hers was only an uncredited, bit part. I could barely recognize her with blond hair (which, I might add, was done up in hairdo on par with Joan's. I don't know who was responsible for styling the hair in this movie, but they are dire need of a beating).whoops, never mind that part.

I rather enjoyed The Women. I found the recurring references to Jungle Red particularly amusing, especially Mary's remark about her "claws" at the end of the movie. If I ever find myself leading an armored division into battle, rest assured that "Jungle Red" will be our battlecry.

And did I really just write several paragraphs arguing about costume design and hairstyles? Good God. Pardon me, but I have to go play some violent video games while listening to Death Metal.

21 February 2008

Album of This Week: Jethro Tull - The Minstrel in the Gallery (1975)

Before I begin, I think a bit of a disclaimer is in order. I'm not nearly as steeped in the history and mythology of Classic Rock as I am in Black Metal, but I do know what I like. That being said, this week's album is Jethro Tull's The Minstrel in the Gallery.

Elements of English folk music abound on this album, not the least of which is Ian Anderson's skilled flute playing. Furthermore, these folkish passages are intertwined seamlessly with more conventional elements of traditional Rock Music. The Minstrel in the Gallery is dominated largely by two tracks, the eponymous "Minstrel in the Gallery" and "Baker St. Muse," which have the effect of bookending the album quite nicely. The latter track is quite the composition, being an amalgam of several songs into one--something which Jethro Tull did with some regualrity (see Thick as a Brick for proof), and which works quite well here, as each component song is different from the others, while being linked thematically.

A mixture of acoustic and rock tracks round out the album quite nicely; "One White Duck / 010 = Nothing At All" stands out in particular. The 2002 re-release of the album featured several bonus tracks, "Summerday Sands" being perhaps the most memorable of these (and a good song in its own right, even if it wasn't on the 1975 original.

The Minstrel in the Gallery is a Progressive Rock classic which stands up well to repeated listenings.

19 February 2008

My Soul for His Glory

Behexen released their latest album, entitled My Soul for His Glory, on 8 February (the day before my birthday, I might add). It is their first LP since 2004's By the Blessing of Satan, and it seems that their sound has undergone something of an evolution in that four year interim. The changes they seem to have made are, I assure you, for the better. Whereas By the Blessing of Satan was an onslaught of black cacophony that bordered on the unlistenable, My Soul for His Glory has a much cleaner (though still blazingly furious) sound.

Not only does the album look great (sporting excellent artwork done by Babalon Graphics), but musically it is everything that Black Metal should be. The atmosphere of blasphemous, unabashed evil is spot-on, thanks to the unexpectedly clear production that the album features. There are some great guitar riffs to be heard here--the echoing riff in "Demonic Fleshtemple" is particularly memorable. However the most pleasant surprise (insofar as this sort of raw, uncompromising Black Metal can be pleasant) lies in the rhythm section--the necessary blastbeats are present and accounted for, but they are never excessive; indeed there is a significant amount of variety in the drumming.

2008 is still young, but My Soul for His Glory is an early candidate for album of the year. Leave it to a gang of Satan-worshiping Finns to pull of a great album like this.

18 February 2008

Album of Last Week: Ulver - Kveldssanger (1995)

A vicious tag team of illness and real-world concerns (damn them!) kept me from posting much last week, so I'm going to make up for it by posting about two albums this week.

Ulver is a band that truly defies classification. They began their existence as a Folk-influenced Black Metal outfit, and later branched out into avant-garde electronica after 1998. Ulver's first three albums have retrospectively been given the title of The Trilogie. 1995's Kveldssanger was the second installment, and is the subject of my focus in this episode of Album of the Week.

What strikes the listener first is that Kveldssanger is utterly acoustic. The sound is so very different from the rest of Ulver's curriculum vitae that one might not think it was the same band. The second aspect of the album which strikes the listener is the atmosphere. The title of the album in English is "Evening Songs," and the music is well-suited to that description. The music is peaceful, with just the right balance of melancholy and contentment; inevitably, when listening to Kveldssanger I find myself envisioning summer evenings in an idyllic countryside where I have never been, yet is strangely familiar. Lyrics are sparse throughout, coming primarily in the form of two brief a cappella interludes--namely "Ord" and "Sielens Sang".

It's difficult to pick out the best tracks--every song on the album is good, and this is the sort of album which bears listening in its completion--but "Høyfjeldsbilde," "Naturmystikk," and "Halling" are my personal favorites, the first because it manages to capture that summer dusk feeling better than any other song on the album, the second because of it's incorporation of woodwinds and the third because it is perhaps the most peaceful song on the album, so much so that it feels almost happy.

Kveldssanger is one of those rare albums where I can chose a track at random and enjoy it utterly. Combine that fact with it's idyllic atmosphere, and the end result is one of my favorite albums of all time. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

13 February 2008

David Lynch on the Iphone

I think Mr. Lynch has a very valid point. One could, in fact, say the same thing about watching old movies on YouTube (as I have been known to do). I won't deny that I'd much rather watch the classics on a big screen, but until those tightwads in Hollywood decide to release Our Dancing Daughters on DVD, I'm not going to have much choice in the matter. Well, I suppose I could get it on VHS, but that's just so icky. And besides, I don't even have a VCR anymore. Hopefully the evil geniuses behind the Criterion Collection will get on that.

11 February 2008

The Art of Grimness, Ep. 5

Euronymous--born Øystein Aarseth--was one of the pioneers of the so-called second wave of Black Metal, and is by and large the archetypal guitarist for the genre. To put it simply, Euronymous did for Black Metal guitars what Greta Garbo did for women's fashion in the 1930s. Euronymous famously met his rather grisly end at the hands of Varg Vikernes as a result of personal rancor over recording contract disputes. That having been said, it's kind of hard to feel sorry for someone who was, by most standards, an out-and-out asshole--a brief skim of his wikipedia article reveals that he was anything but a nice guy--it's tempting, in fact to say that he probably had it coming. After all, if I were to come home to find that a bandmate of mine had shot himself in the head with a shotgun, my first reaction probably wouldn't be to rush out and buy a disposable camera so that I might take pictures of the body. I'd at least call the police first.

10 February 2008

Relevant to my Interests, Ep. 8

Norma Shearer was America's lazy-eyed sweetheart; the de facto imperatrix of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during the 1930s. It helped that she was married to producer Irving Thalberg, a fact her studio rivals--chief among them Joan Crawford--were wont to dwell on. Of course, Norma was a perfectly good actress in her own right, and wielded great influence in Hollywood until her impromptu retirement in 1942.

07 February 2008

This May Soon Adorn My Bare Walls

This is a painting by New Zealand artist Hayley Brown, entitled Hats on Hudson. I remember seeing a print of it a few years ago in the Z Gallerie--one of those upscale home decoration stores--and I was quite drawn to it, particularly given it's rampant Art Deco sensibilities. After some searching, I was able to find prints of the painting for sale, at which point I nearly shouted "that's it!", as though I had found the True Cross. Needless to say, I might just have to spring for a print of it. What say you?

05 February 2008

Album of the Week: Kroda - Поплач менi, Рiчко... (2004)

Ukraine's Kroda is a recent discovery of mine. I heard their music for the first time in December, but it was one of those occasions where I was hooked instantly upon the first listen. The music of Kroda may best be described as Pagan Folk Metal with significant Black Metal influences, an evolution--as with so many of the Slavonic Black Metal bands in existence--of the sound pioneered by Robert "Rob Darken" Fudali of Graveland. Yet such a comparison does not truly do Kroda's music the justice it deserves.

Поплач менi, Рiчко... (in English, Cry to me, River...) may be Kroda's debut album, but it sounds more like the work of seasoned veterans. Unlike most Black Metal, the production on this album is excellent--each element of Kroda's sound is perfectly audible, including the oft-neglected Bass guitar. The drumming is precise, and avoids falling into the pattern of monotonous blast-beats which plagues Black and Death Metal. The band makes sparing use of keyboards, reserving them for only the most appropriate of moments. The most effective element of Kroda's sound, however, may well be the band's use of traditional Ukranian instruments, including the cопiлка (sopilka, a sort of flute), which gives the music an extra touch of sincerity and spirit.

Not that it needed much help, mind you--the music here is epic in the fullest sense of the word. Grand, stirring melodies accompanied by rhythms both metallic and folksy are the order of the day, and the combination works fantastically. "Where Peace and Calm were Immortalized" and "
Cry to Me, River... (Betrayal of Knjaz Volodymir)" are two of the best songs on the album, the former due to its effortless transition between fierce, full-tilt Metal and stirring Folk passages, and the latter because it represents the emotional climax of the album (appropriate, given that it is the title track!). Realistically speaking, however, there isn't a bad song to be found on this album.

Throughout, Cry to me, River... is a satisfying listen. Ukraine must be quite a place to have inspired music such as this.

04 February 2008

Some Thoughts on Race

What follows is an essay that I recently wrote for one of my classes (entitled Classics 305: Inventing the Barbarian). I decided I would post it here, as it might make for some interesting reading.

Prior to giving serious study to the subject, my thinking process and attitudes on race were shaped largely by my experiences the social climate in which I spent my formative years. When I was knee-high to the proverbial grasshopper back in northern New Jersey, my family was one a few gentile families in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. My next door neighbor and best friend for years was a girl with a white mother and a black father. A diverse selection of races was present in my kindergarten and First grade classes. People were aware of the differences, but by and large they accepted one another. This is not to say that I lived in some sort of egalitarian utopia; there was some discrimination, as there will be in any human society, and there were times when I myself was on the receiving end of it (which, I suppose, is to be expected when one is part of the minority). Bearing in mind my experiences of being one of the others made me somewhat doubtful of Snowden’s description of an egalitarian classical oecumene, as appealing as his portrait was. When I moved to Kansas City I was quite aware of the difference in the cultural climate, even at my relatively young age. This was the first time I ever really gave serious thought to the issue of race.

For many years thereafter, my way of defining race was in lock-step with the cultural norm—race, I thought, was a matter of physical traits and cultural practices (the latter including language). On the other hand, the more I read about history and the movements and intermingling of nations, tribes and ethnoi, the more that definition becomes ambiguous. Some of what I have read has questioned whether or not race was a scientific fact, or a concept created by humans. As we have seen in Jared Diamond’s article, people can be classified and race can be ascribed in a variety of ways, depending on what criteria one wants to use. For my part, I still believe that race is a fact; that Zulus and Scotsmen are different from each other in several noticeable ways is quite obvious. On the other hand, I don’t think that race is the be-all-end-all of anthropology. To put it another way, I find that race is like gravity—it exists, and it is important, but actually defining race is something of a Sisyphean task.

None of the various criteria that I have seen used have been able to encompass all aspects of race. Physical characteristics—perhaps thanks to miscegenation of different ethnic groups over time—do not define race completely. For example, we tend to think of both Taurinese and Sicilians as being Italian, but the former group tends to have noticeably lighter skin than their southern cousins. I still believe, however, that physiognomy is an important element of race. Neither is language a satisfactory barometer for determining race—the dialect of Italian spoken by a native of Turin is not at all what a native of Syracuse would speak, to return to my earlier example. For an even starker contrast, one may consider that Haitians and Quebecois both speak French dialects, though it is plain to see that they are not the same race.

I think that much of the difficulty in defining race can be ascribed to the historical tendency of various peoples to come into contact and intermingle with one another (with sometimes violent results, as has been the case throughout history). The very reason that black Hatians in the Caribbean speak roughly the same language as white Parisians is a direct result of French colonialism, of which the abominable (at least by modern standards) practice of slavery was an integral part. Similarly, the gradient of physical attributes visible among the various peoples of Europe (or indeed most other places in the world) owes much to the fact that myriad tribes have invaded and fought over land and resources for untold centuries. Of course, this is all just a theory for which I have no solid evidence. Nor do I have an explanation for why the different tribes should have been so different in the first place—evolutionary response is a tempting scapegoat, but here too there is a troubling paucity of evidence.

Much of our difficulty in understanding race, I believe, arises from social and cultural obstacles. Primary among these is the phenomenon political correctness. It has been my suspicion for some time that we as a society tend to dance around the issue of race, typically for fear of offending someone or sounding racist or otherwise discriminatory, and thus many of the conflicts regarding race often go unresolved. On the other end of the spectrum, our xenophobic tendencies can lead to violence when left unchecked—consider, for example, the 1967 race riots in Newark and the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, or the immigration controversies in the United States and the United Kingdom which continue to this day. In this day and age, where ethnic and cultural diversity is considered a point of pride, the crux of the problem may be that we either do not acknowledge that race is an issue or are unable to deal with racial tensions in a nonviolent manner. Not that I mean to belittle diversity—it does a species well to introduce new genes into the collective gene pool; dogs of mixed breeding, for example, are often more intelligent than their thoroughbred counterparts.

So where does this leave me? I still believe that race is a naturally-occurring phenomenon, and that it is a matter of no small importance. Defining race, on the other hand, is a troubling matter. Yet if we are to come up with a satisfactory definition of race, we perhaps ought to reconsider out attitudes concerning the subject in the first place.

01 February 2008

Separated at Birth? Ep. 3

This one is definitely a stretch, but hear me out. Whilst checking wikipedia to see if anyone important was born today, I discovered that no less a personage than Clark Gable himself was born on this very day some 107 years ago. I've been playing BioShock quite a lot recently, and upon seeing the actor's photo, I couldn't help but be reminded of Sander Cohen, a rather eccentric character from the game. The resemblance isn't what one might call uncanny, but it's there. Really, it's all in the mustache.

If nothing else, this goes to show that I have been playing BioShock far, far too much.