Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Skeleton Tree’ (2016)

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Ever since I saw Nick Cave twist and brood in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), in which he and the Bad Seeds turned “From Her to Eternity” into a hymn for the forlorn, I have always listened to their songs as religious music for the fallen.  Just as Wenders’ angels, Damiel and Cassiel, looked over and worried about humanity in an unbelieving world ravaged by world war and divided by the Berlin Wall, so too does Cave and his collaborators evoke a world, across sixteen studio albums, in which love and skepticism are the two angels guiding the consciences of people who are on an endless search for acceptance, affirmation, relief, forgetting, and oblivion.  The Bad Seeds’ world is a world of Cain and Abel, Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, an image that was reinforced for me by Cave’s 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel.

In the case of Skeleton Tree, released a mere twelve days ago on September 6, the spirit of Job is conjured throughout each of the album’s eight songs.  More to the point, Skeleton Tree is an album of loss, mourning, and anguish, which is infused with an otherworldly beauty.  The music is sparse and moody, while the lyrics are emotionally complex.  From “Jesus Alone,” in which various tragic figures are seen in their darkest hour, to the title track, which stirs up a desolate landscape and “a jittery tv,” each song explores a different form of anguish, be it a lost love, “I Need You,” or a lost child, “Girl In Amber.”

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How much of what appears in this album was inspired—if that’s the right word—by the death of Cave’s fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, last year at the Ovingdean Gap near Brighton, England, one cannot say based on the lyrics alone.  What is obvious is the tone of despair and elegiac splendor, which take the listener from the hopelessness of “Anthrocene,” in which Cave sings “All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose” to the hint of redemption in “Distant Sky,” which sings with anticipation, “Soon the children will be rising, will be rising,” even if “This is not for our eyes.”  My favorite song, though, is “Rings of Saturn,” which is about the epiphany of a woman, “Her body, moon blue, was a jellyfish” and who is “completely unexplained.”

In the end, Skeleton Tree is a more than worthy successor to Push the Sky Away (2014).  For even if one is unaware of the tragedy that has befallen Cave, the songs comprising this album are as evocative and fulfilling as anything he has ever done, be it Tender Prey (1988) or Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004).  All I can tell you is that I haven’t been able to stop listening to these songs all weekend.

Does Hell Exist? It Does If You Believe It, It Doesn’t If You Don’t: Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s ‘Séance’ (2000)

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Inspired by Mark McShane’s 1961 novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, director of Cure (1997) and Pulse (2002), among other classic dark cinema features, ventures into the realm of made-for-television movies. As such, it may be easy for J-Horror aficionados to overlook this little gem in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. Kurosawa’s previous works for television, a series of Yakuza stories, have not distinguished themselves. To put it simply, the kind of death and horror that Kurosawa would soon display in Pulse is de-emphasized for the sake of a more general television audience. Nevertheless, Kurosawa does not curtail his talent for telling a story that is driven by well-rounded characters, complete with the inner-turmoil and failings that are often a part of life, and which compel his characters to given in to their fears.

“Sato Koji” (Yakusho Koji) and “Sato Junco” (Fubuki Jun) are an ostensibly ordinary couple living in a country house. Seemingly happy, Koji works as a sound technician for an unnamed company while his wife Junco stays at home. However, Junco is not exactly a typical housewife. She has a gift for contacting the dead—she is a medium. It is also a power that has attracted the attention of a psychology graduate student “Hayasaka” (Kusanagi Tsuyoshi) who is interested in studying her psychic abilities. From the perspective of science, Junco’s capacity for communicating with the deceased is something that ought to be validated through research. On the other hand, from Junco’s point-of-view, her connection with the spirit world is both a gift and a curse, which becomes evident when she takes a job as a waitress at a local restaurant and her proclivity for seeing ghosts becomes an issue.  In between Junco and Hayasaka is Koji, who obviously knows the burden that his wife carries and does his best to be supportive.

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Fate soon appears in the form of an anonymous little girl (Isobe Shiori) who is kidnapped by a deranged former policeman, only to escape unknowingly into the hands of Koji, who happens to be out on an assignment at Mt Fuji, where he is recording wind blowing through the trees. At first shocked at finding the kidnapped girl on their property, Koji and Junco initially decide to call the authorities. However, Junco has sudden doubts about how things will look, given that this child is the victim of a much-publicized kidnapping. Consequently, instead of calling for help, Junco comes up with a plan for what she thinks will spare them any accusations from the police. Junco will feign using her psychic ability to “help” the police locate this girl. In fact, because of Junco’s relation to Hayasaka, she has already been introduced to a detective (Kitarô) as a possible resource for finding this little girl. In light of which, Junco will use the trust she has earned from Hayasaka and convince him that, whereas before she could not be of help, now she can, a ploy that will also inspire a desire for fame in Junco’s heart.

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Eventually, tragedy occurs and the once ordinary couple of Koji and Junco find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, the forces of which are becoming much more than either of them can control. One of the more memorable scenes is a conversion between Koji and the Shinto priest (Aikawa Shô) that he has asked to purify his home. Upon completing the purification ritual, Koji asks the priest what he should do, now that his house has been purified. The priest, after hesitating at the question, counsels Koji and his wife, who is not present, to be honest and live ordinary, which are two things that the couple has ceased to do. Two other noteworthy scenes are a symbolic encounter between Koji and his doppelganger, along with a nod to Nakata Hideo’s Ringu involving the little girl. Speaking of nods to other films, in the clip provided below, Kurosawa references a character that he will later develop in Retribution (2006).  Lastly, for anyone familiar with Bryan Forbes 1964 adaptation of McShane’s novel, one will quickly notice that the two films have very little in common. Forbes’ version is noted as being more faithful to the book, while Kurosawa’s film is more faithful to the world he created in Cure and further developed in Pulse, which themselves are respectful of the Japanese ghost story tradition.

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“Ghosts and People Are the Same”: The Cyber-Limbo of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’ (2001)

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001) is an important part of a wave of dark films that began appearing during the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, which collectively set Japanese Horror (or J-Horror) apart in world cinema. The trend began with Kurosawa’s earlier film Cure (1997), then continued with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2001), and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On (2002). J-Horror is distinct from the kind of shock films created during the same period by the likes of Kinji Fukusaka (Battle Royale, 2000) and Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, 2001). Unlike the latter two films, which rely on extreme violence, J-Horror depends mostly on the paranormal for inspiration.

In one respect, Kurosawa’s Pulse (titled Kairo, “Chaos,” in Japan) is a modern example of the Japanese tradition of ghost stories or Kaidan-shū, which go all the way back to the earliest stages of the Edo Period (17th century). In terms of cinema, Pulse is preceded by such superlative films as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) and Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba (1964). In another respect, Pulse is reflective of Japanese society at the end of the 20th century, which is affected less by westernized notions of the millennium and more by its own “Lost Decade” or Ushinawareta Jūnen. In the case of the parallel stories of “Michi Kudo” (Kumiko Asô) and “Ryosuke Kawashima” (Haruhiko Katô) they are confronted with a shadowy world of lonely spirits, who have found a portal into this world through the internet. Indeed, what appears at first to be isolated events turns into a global crisis.

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What is most startling about the world of the dead that is occupying various computer screens is that each case is the result of a suicide, whose ghostly aftermath leaves them in a “forbidden room” from which they plead for help. Most terrifying of all is the fact that the world of the dead is beginning to infect and transform the world of the living. Once exposed to the forces contained in the forbidden room, victims soon lose their will to live, either killing themselves or just as often turning into blackened silhouettes painted into the walls and floors where they were last seen alive. In spite of efforts to warn people away from the forbidden rooms by sealing the doors with red tape, the attractive force of that world continues to lure people into it, even causing one unnamed woman to plummet to her death in one of the more disturbing, not to mention memorable, scenes in cinematic history.

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The effectiveness of Kurosawa’s film is that it refrains from either becoming preachy about the ills of society  or explaining too much about what is happening. In fact, very little is explained at all beyond the speculation of some of the characters, all of whom are ultimately at a loss about what to do.  For Michi and Ryosuke, all they can do is worry about their friends, be they “Toshio Yabe” (Masatoshi Matsuo) and “Junko Sasano” (Kurume Arisaka) for Michi or “Harue Karasawa” (Koyuki) for Ryosuke, trying however they can to save them from a force that is overtaking all of existence—like a web of darkness.

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When the Sins of the Sons Exceed Those of the Father: Adam Windgard’s ‘You’re Next’ (2013)

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Which came first, the plot or the action? In the case of Adam Windgard’s 2013 action-horror film You’re Next, the action scenes in which “Erin” (Sharni Vinson) displays her Jason Bourne-like survivor skills clearly were the prime mover for this film. While the back story of the characters needed some more development in order to better explain the motivation for the characters’ actions, particularly at the crucial plot twist toward the denouement when characters’ true colors are revealed, nonetheless the movie succeeds at generating a genuine sense of peril. The premise of the story is straightforward enough, adult sons, “Crispian” (A J Bowen), “Drake” (Joe Swanberg), “Felix” (Nicholas Tucci), sister “Aimee” (Amy Seimetz), and their various partners gather at the parents’ “Rob” (Rob Moran) and “Aubrey” (Barbara Crampton) country estate.

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During dinner, as wine and sibling rivalry begin to mix, complete mayhem erupts when this little family affair is suddenly assaulted by a gang of masked men, who do not waste time at making their violent intentions known. Why are they doing this? Is it because for the family’s conspicuous wealth? Or does it have to do with Rob’s history of working for a major defense contractor? Or do these men just enjoy the terror they are inflicting? Whatever the case may be, neither the family inside cowering nor the attackers outside ready to force their way in could anticipate Erin’s reaction. Initially as shocked as others, Erin soon reveals a side to herself that suggests she has been through this type of situation before. Plot holes and one-dimensional characters notwithstanding, You’re Next is an entertaining mix of Roger Avary’s Killing Zoe (1993) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).

“I Am A Loyal Dog!”: Cult Leader’s One-Band Rebellion Against Conformity

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Photo credit: David Martínez

If your only image of music coming out of the state of Utah is limited to The Osmonds or if you thought that Salt Lake City punk was just some old 90s movie, then you haven’t checked out Cult Leader. Touring on their 2015 debut album Lightless Walk, I caught the band opening for Dragged Into Sunlight at Club Congress on Sunday, July 17, 2016 in downtown Tucson, AZ. Interestingly, when I first saw the band they were opening for Sleep during the Southwest TerrorFest last October, which was also in downtown Tucson, only then it was across the street at the Rialto Theatre. Both shows were awesome. However, the gig at Club Congress was more intimate. Not to say that there were any kumbaya moments. On the contrary, Cult Leader is totally grindcore, some would say crust, both of which evoke an intensity expressed in rapid hardcore licks, growling vocals, and lyrics that rage against the suffocation of conformity. The song that I recorded, “Mongrel,” is from the band’s 2014 EP Nothing For Us Here. It’s a song about a dog and about loyalty, which is taken to gruesome extremes.

Dragged Into Sunlight: When Misanthropy and Music Collide

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When the prisoners of Plato’s allegory of the cave were compelled out of their subterranean domain, where they lived with the shadows of deception, into the light of truth, they convulsed at the onslaught of a relentlessly bright world. Only after their eyes slowly adjusted did they begin to appreciate, even adore, the world revealed to them. However, what happens when the sun is too painful because it’s simply not your natural environment? Like a vampire, werewolf, or ghost, your world is the world of darkness. So, if you’re dragged into sunlight against your will, your impulse will be, not only to return to the shadows from where you were found, but perhaps even seek the deeper recesses of your realm of choice. When the extreme metal band Dragged Into Sunlight was asked in an interview with Slug Magazine about why they perform with their backs to the audience on a dimly lit stage, they answered, “Dragged Into Sunlight is an ugliness best kept in the dark.” At the same time, the band also stated, “There is definitely some beauty to be found in the unknown.”

On Sunday, July 17, 2016, in the hot and humid cavern of Club Congress in Tucson, Arizona, I saw Dragged Into Sunlight perform for the first time.  They were touring on their recently released collaboration with Gnaw Their Tongues NV, which stands for “negative volume.” However, their set was a mix of their current release and tracks from their first full album Hatred For Mankind (2014). What I experienced in that small venue was an apocalyptic eruption of grinding chords, pounding drums, and vocals from the pits of Hell. True to form, the band played their roughly fifty-minute set in an alternation of dim stage lights and constant strobing, which was off-set with a huge candelabra standing in the middle of the forestage.  I never saw any of the band members’ faces once, including the bassist, whose microphone was setup to face the audience.

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As for the music, the show opened with “To Hieron,” which is the fourth track on Hatred For Mankind. Like many song lyrics, the words of “To Hieron” evoke different things to different listeners. According to DarkLyrics.com, what is sung in a highly stylized voice of anguish and aggression are the words:

Watching, waiting, visible

Skeleton witch,
Starved for weeks

Dethroned, defleshed, and stoned to death,
Lashed to the grinder

Jaws locked around your face
Think before you fucking speak

With respect to the origins of Hieron, it is an ancient Greek word for “temple” or “sacred space,” in addition to being the name of a 5th century BC kingdom on the island of Syracuse. Does the song have to do with either of these meanings? Obliquely, at best. More obviously, in my mind, the song conjures an image of utter destitution and forlornness, the kind of punishment that only an angry god can inflict upon someone. What I’m trying to say, then, with regard to Dragged Into Sunlight’s performance is that “To Hieron” set the tone for the entire show, which was fucking loud and amazing! If William Blake were alive today to form an extreme metal band, it would probably be Dragged Into Sunlight. There is, indeed, a kind of beauty to the unknown. By the time the band ended its set, no one spoke to the audience once and the show suddenly ended with a completely darkened stage. No thank you or goodbye. It was a brilliantly conceived stage show. In the end, my long wait to see this band perform live was well worth it. In fact, it seems nothing short of a dark miracle that their tour found its way to Congress Street in downtown Tucson. I hope the forces of darkness send them my way again. Please enjoy the video clip I recorded below:

Photo and video credits: David Martínez

‘This Is England!’: Shane Meadows’ Pre-Brexit Story of a Depressed British Isles

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Spurred by recent events in the UK, including the British pound’s abrupt decline to its lowest value since the mid-80s and David Cameron’s embarrassing attempt at quoting The Smiths’ “Cemetery Gates,” I felt a compulsion to watch Shane Meadows’ This Is England. Released in 2006, the story takes place in 1983, in the aftermath of the Falklands War.

As This Is England begins we are introduced to “Shaun” (Thomas Turgoose), whose father was killed in action, leaving him and his mother, “Cynthia” (Jo Hartley), to fend for themselves in their working class seaside town. They live in a flat next door to a Church of Christ bearing the graffito “Maggie is a TWAT!” on its front. Feeling alone and grieving for his dad, Shaun, a sullen twelve-year-old, is also the target of bullies. Things seemingly change for the better, though, when Shaun happens upon some drifters under a bridge, who decide to befriend him. “Woody” (Joseph Gilgun), the leader of the gang, takes a particular liking to Shaun, becoming a kind of big brother. As Shaun finds acceptance among his new mates he soon takes on the attire his adopted post-punk skinhead life, complete with “Lol” (Vicky McClure) shaving his head.

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However, things take a dramatic change when “Combo” (Stephen Graham) returns from prison, having done three-and-a-half years on Woody’s behalf for an unexplained offense. What becomes apparent as Combo reclaims his place among friends is that he’s assumed a political awareness based on race and class, but especially race, which, according to Woody, wasn’t like him before. This Is England is ultimately about how vitriolic racism disguising itself as patriotism, ie the National Front, feeds on the listless and uneducated; people who are in desperate need of someone to tell them that their depressed and impoverished lives are not their fault. It’s the London establishment and immigrants who are ruining the country, or so the blood and soil rhetoric of nationalism goes.

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Which ones will follow Combo and which ones won’t? A once tightly-knit group of friends suddenly starts to fray. As for Shaun, he misses his dad terribly. So, he unfortunately thinks that following Combo will enable him to redeem his dad’s death in a pointless war over the last remnant of a fallen British empire. The story of Shaun, along with Combo, Woody, and Lol, not to mention “Milky” (Andrew Shim), the lone person of color in this debacle of grassroots hate-mongering, is the story of a Britain that has long struggled to define itself amidst the shards of a former colonial glory. This is England then. Yes. This is England now.

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