As a kid I used to count swear words in movies. There was something childishly transgressive about the act of tallying that gave me such joy. I'd keep track in my head of which films sat at the top of the foul-language list. In the 90s, Casino and Summer of Sam topped the official list of films with the most uses of the word "fuck." I'd heard that there was another film from the same period, a British one, that had just as many "fucks" as the American champions, a film called Nil By Mouth. I can't remember where I'd heard this, but I knew I had to find it and see it. I didn't know anything about its star, Ray Winstone, nor did I know it was directed by Gary Oldman, to this day his only directorial project. I got my hands on a VHS copy and subjected myself to one of the most raw, brutal film viewing experiences I've ever had.
Nil By Mouth fits into a sub-category of British films from the 90s that are distinguished by tones of totalizing darkness. It is an unflinching realist portrayal of a working class family in south-east London, and the problems that plague their lives. Ray Winstone is terrifying as the alcoholic patriarch Raymond. His wife, Valerie, played magnificently by Kathy Burke, smokes and drinks while pregnant. Their son, Billy, shoots heroin in the streets with his criminal friends. The film's most memorable scene is its most shocking, in which Raymond beats Valerie severely after convincing himself she has cheated on him. The violence of the scene is mostly off screen, as we only see Ray's thrashing body, watch him repeatedly scream the word "cunt!" as he appears to stomp. The viciousness of the attack is stunning, almost too much to watch even if off-screen. The couple separates for a time, but in the end Kathy and Ray remain together. There is a sense that nothing will change, despite Ray's promises that he will be a better husband. We are almost certain he will do this again. There is a feeling that domestic abuse, addiction, poverty are constants, states of being.
Nil By Mouth presents itself as a stark representation of the violence borne out of these conditions. Beyond its realism, the film has a deeper subtextual purpose - to relay the transgressive impulses of its era. The film dares you to enjoy it, to declare that despite the horror of what it depicts, it's still a well written, well-acted piece of art. It dares you to watch it again, to be a voyeur of its violence, its spotlighting of poverty. There's an inherent confrontation embedded in its essence.
Nil By Mouth is bedfellows with a handful of other films from the decade, films equally dark and challenging. Mike Leigh's 1993 black comedy Naked draws from a similar well as Nil By Mouth, where the narrative feels encased in the darkness of alleys, trash, haunted London nights. As a kid Naked was another film I remember had some forbidden allure; I remember seeing its poster in the newspaper, an image of a man walking down an alley at night, toward a couple that looked to be having sex right there on filthy concrete. The film confronts you with scenes of rape, of unfiltered rage, of psychological torment, of choking claustrophobia. Most notable about Naked is David Thewlis's superb performance as Johnny, an angst-ridden drifter who has fled Manchester for London after committing rape. The film tracks him and his random encounters as he wanders the streets, having been barred from staying at his ex-girlfriend's house. He appears to us ranting, fed-up, fragmented from society, filled with conspiracy and mistrust. Despite his rage, you are compelled to follow him, to understand him. Johnny, Like Raymond in Nil By Mouth, is meant to be a reflection of his time and place. The luxurious glory of the 80s has ended, and we are left with debris. Johnny is debris, rotting, rabid, and entirely human.
It's useful to discuss Naked alongside Mike Leigh's follow up, his 1996 masterpiece Secrets and Lies, about an adopted middle class black woman searching for her birth mother, who turns out to be a working class white woman. Leigh is clearly interested in teasing out discussions about class in 1990s England, and does so with beautiful precision in Secrets and Lies, a truly touching film deserving of its Palme d'Or win and Best Picture nomination. But measured against Naked, Leigh's interest in class becomes more compelling. Naked is the unfiltered, if less precise reflection on on the subject. It is a film about the rage borne out of alienation, a class condition which Leigh sees as inevitable in this economic and social period.
A few years earlier, we saw hints of the dark tide coming for British cinematic shores. 1989 gave us one of the greatest subversive British films, Peter Greenway's The Cook The Thief His Wife Her Lover, a surreal, dizzyingly fucked-up film about a restaurant, the gangster that owns it (the wonderful Michael Gambon), his adulterous wife (the wonderful Helen Mirren), and the grotesquely alluring things that go on behind the scenes. The film is hypnotically colorful, draped in vibrant reds and blues. Its subject matter is a tough load to swallow - extreme violence, cannibalism, shit-eating. - sounds like a Sadeian nightmare. The excess that this film captures, at the close of the 80s, measures well against the period of film that would follow, one marked by night hues, poverty, starkness. But like Naked and Nil By Mouth, The Cook is clearly interested in transgression, but one borne out of excess. In a sense it predicts some of the films that would come after it, that the excess it reflects on signifies a tipping point in the culture. The economic conditions of the era may change, but the use of transgressiveness or confrontation as storytelling techniques remains.
There are many other underrated British films that could fit into this discussion, but perhaps none capture the bleakness of the era quite like Tim Roth's directorial debut The War Zone. Ray Winstone again plays a monstrous patriarch, one who sexually abuses his own daughter. Tilda Swinton plays Mum, who having just had a baby, is unable or unwilling to see the incest taking place in her own home. it's 15-year-old Tom who senses it, and tries to confront his father, and the looming monster of the crime itself, until in the end the tension erupts into violence. The War Zone explores many of the same themes as other films of the era - alienation, class struggle, the toll of violence on the psyche - but does so in such a confrontational way that the film begs you to look away. Much of the actual abuse of the film occurs off-screen. It is the effects on the victim and the family that we are left with. There's something irreconcilable about the film, and I think more broadly about the era in which it exists. The darkness it's reflecting on can't be conquered, there is no monster to be slayed, no good guy to save the day. The monsters of these films can't be conquered because they are not the source of evil, but rather products of their environment, manifestations of a society stuck in some kind of socio-economic death spiral. At the end of The War Zone, during the final confrontation, Tom stabs his father with a kitchen knife. Dad's fate is uncertain, but there's a deeply unsettling feeling that this stabbing has solved nothing, that the imprint of his abuses are solidified, and that he and other abusers will continue to be monsters forever.
So much of the cultural production of the 90s was a reflection of what happens when an era of excess ends, and yet the ideology that dominates the culture continues. The cold war ended, and so did history. Capitalist democracy ruled as the ideological principal of the West, and yet the period eventually saw moments of steep economic stagnation. Cocaine became heroin. New wave became grunge. In American cinema, postmodernism reigned as the poignant method for reflecting on the hyperreal instabilities of the era. In Britain, the starkest mode of cinematic reflection came in the form of subversion, where film was less interested in challenging questions about the medium itself, and more about the limits of the human experience in a decaying society. What we get is a compendium of films that actively challenge and confront their viewer, not for the sake of shock value, but with the goal of breaking down barriers of what we might enjoy in our art. These films dare you to look at them, and force you ask yourself "is this okay? Am I allowed to look? To accept?" These questions are about much more than films or art. They become the internal challenges we pose to ourselves when we look at the society in which we live.
Other films from the era to check out: The Krays, Close My Eyes, The Cement Garden, Damage, Trainspotting, The Crying Game, Under The Skin (not the Scarlett Johansson one, though that is also great), Shallow Grave, Gangster no. 1
I had a southern literature professor that warned us about how not to read The Sound and the Fury. He said don't try to understand it. If you spend each page retracing your steps, grinding mental energy until you think you're at a level of comprehension Faulkner would approve of, you'll never finish. Just read. Read each page carefully, but don't worry about whether or not it makes sense. If it doesn't, that's fine. Take joy in the chaos.
Without this advice I don't think I would have gotten through many books that today I consider favourites.
I think some people disdain tough reads because they believe that those that brag about loving Ulysses or The Waves or Gravity's Rainbow must live up inside their own ass. But I can only speak personally: I love joying in the chaos of wicked prose that I don't understand.
I think part of the potential magic of this chaos is that, in the hard weird texts that I love, the chaos always seems to work toward fostering a vibe, rather than telling a conventionally coherent story. And it can be one hell of a vibe. I think about Hopscotch, an all time fave, where Julio Cortazar says at the very beginning that there's no clear and distinct way to read this book. He doesn't set out to tell a linear story; it's hard to explain Hopscotch beyond basic logline stuff - "A book about an Argentinian poet dude in Paris with a mysterious and alluring as hell Uruguayan girlfriend that everyone wants to fuck and the band of artists and misfits that they hang out and get drunk and smoke and drink mate with." Sounds like after ten pages you'd be yawning into a postmodern abyss. The prose itself is dense as Argentine silver. But it's a magic book. You sit with its chaos and you feel like you are there, in Paris, with The Serpent Club, and you don't speak the language but you sure as hell are having a good time at the party.
I recently read and loved David Markson's novel Wittgenstein's Mistress. It's about a woman narrating her experience as the last human being on earth. We think. It's hard to tell if she's reliable. She spends the majority of the book discussing the habits and eccentricities and tragedies of famous artists. She seems to be obsessive, manic. At a certain point in my reading, near the end of the book, I got it. I figured out what Markson was doing. I was so proud of myself. Then, by the end of the book, I realized I'd made a mistake. There is no way to "get" what exactly Markson is doing with this narrative. There are interpretations, but no one answer. The joy I took from this book was not in solving it; it was in joying in the chaos.
Maybe my favourite challenging narrative is Grace Krilanovich's The Orange Eats Creeps. Every blurb online tells you it's about a group of teenage junkies roaming the Pacific Northwest that may or may not be vampires. The words in the text suggest that these barely pubescent scamps literally suck blood out of people. But the narrative constantly leans into the unreliability, the impossibility of this claim. The writing itself doubles down on the confusion, as Krilanovich uses such vivid colour to paint the otherwise pitch black tone of this story, which as you move through seems to become about the search for missing siblings, family trauma, the horror of domestic violence, the inescapability, the repetition of shared pain.
Krilanovich leaves us with this penultimate paragraph:
"Lump of fat, sparkling with the shock of crackling synapses. Smiling all the time. She was just crumbs when I found her: a speaking, breathing monster. She felt like nothing, pieces of her flesh hanging off here and there as she wiggled around my shoulders. ‘I’m taking you away from this place’ – I walked across the night, into the next town, and it became more difficult to make steps forward as the grade rose and fell unpredictably. She complained, our conversation veering between consolation and admonishment and back again, her broken body draped like a skinned rug on my back while she appeared to grow heavier with each hour. I suspected her body was filling with the rain that grew heavier as we entered the woods on the edge of town"
I've gone over this dazzling chunk of writing a billion times. I've stopped trying to figure out what exactly it's saying, what the reality of the story really is. It doesn't need solving. I go over it again and again, because I love the words.
My favourite band over the last decade has been Full of Hell. The things I love about them are easy to articulate, as they relate to my general taste in music. Crushing heaviness, whiplash speed, deep abysses of noise, confrontation, overwhelming bleakness, creativity, innovation, genre defiance, terror. All traits I love. Dense sound layering. Samples. Dread. Blast beats. You get the idea.
It can't always be so easy to catalogue the elements of a favourite thing. Taste in music, in art, is subjective. Shoot me for saying that. It needn't be explained why a favourite is a favourite. But in the case of my love of a band like Full of Hell, it is easy. Words don't tell the whole story, but they do enough, if I want to try to make the uninitiated understand.
But recently I've found a new musical obsession that defies explanation. This new darling is Portland's Soft Kill. I love them, but why? They're not heavy, not really. Very much different from anything I've considered a favourite. Post-punk, I've heard them called, but that feels too generic, not specific enough for their sound. "gothy, synthy." Hmm, ok, I suppose. The term doom-pop has come up. It's cute and I enjoy it, but it feels inadequate. Maybe the genre isn't important. Maybe there's a variety of bands or genres that could be drawn from to find comparisons. Interpol, Joy Division, Drab Majesty, She Past Away, Tom Petty, U2 - all reasonable comps. But none do justice to the full story.
Soft Kill make me feel things I can't explain. Their music is anthemic, intimate, dark, lush, deeply colourful, up beat, down beat, gloomy, hopeful, upsetting, paralyzing, larger than life, greater than the sum of its parts. One note can sound gargantuan, like the opening of the track Grandview. Entire albums can leave you bent by their emotional complexity. I can't find the right words here, to synthesize what their music is or does. It's rock n roll. It's something.
Soft Kill's music and lyrics are inspired by real suffering. Addiction. Crime. Desperation. The loss of loved ones. The near losses of love ones, children. The uncertainty, the hope, the joy of seeing those loved ones survive and grow. Does the knowledge that Soft Kill's music is informed by tragedy change the way the notes sound? Does the soft basso hum of Tobias Grave's voice touch different strings in me because I read that Savior, my favourite of their albums, was written about his wife's and son's near deaths during childbirth, and their long recoveries thereafter? Does knowledge of the source shape the way the art resonates? Dead Kids, R.I.P City, their most recent full length, deals with the opioid crisis, with the epidemic of overdose deaths in Portland and at large. Does this wrenching fragment of our current reality shape how I hear the music because I have also known those who have died young? I don't know, but I think it does.
One word that does feel adequate is art. Soft Kill are artists of immense talent, who craft exquisite, confounding work. The craftsmanship of their music is exceptional, even if at times it feels simple; it feels that these songs couldn't have been written, that they were placed here by a higher being. At least that's how they feel to me. I hate using the word genius because it's a bullshit word, but some may feel that's what I'm talking about.
This brings up larger questions about how we evaluate art if all art enjoyment is a matter of personal taste. There's friction between the personal and the universal. It's easy to agree that art is about taste, but sometimes we just know, collectively, intuitively, when we witness a great work. Is that what I'm talking about with Soft Kill? Well, I'd say yes, but this still fails to explain why.
All this is inadequate. This attempt to find the right words has proven impossible. There is no proper way of arguing that an artwork is universally good. There is no way of synthesizing why I find this music to be so good. But I feel it in my bones, and I want others to feel the same thing.
The point is
listen to Soft Kill.
There's a sublime sense of disorientation that comes from watching Ryan Gosling's K take the replicant baseline test in Blade Runner 2049. As he listens and stares with his dead-eyed robot face, a commanding voice booms: "A system of cells interlinked within cells interlinked within cells interlinked within one stem... And dreadfully distinct against the dark, a tall white fountain played." K is then made to repeat a sequence of words, based on his interrogator's prompts, mostly "Cells" or "Interlinked." Analyzed on its own, the scene is peculiar and jarring. What does this disconnected, random assortment of phrases have to do with the Blade Runner universe? But, to the weathered reader of postmodern literature, it may recall the word tunnels and haunted poetic caverns of Vladimir Nabakov's greatest work - Pale Fire.
The bit about interlinked cells in the Blade Runner flick is a reference to lines 704-707 of John Shade's poem Pale Fire, the fictional 999 line poem upon which Nabokov's novel is based. The novel is narrated by professor Charles Kinbote, a less than reliable narrator with a seemingly less than healthy obsession with his neighbour, the famous poet John Shade. The novel's structure is unusual; there's an introduction by Kinbote, about the poet and his supposed masterwork, then we read the full poem itself, after which follows Kinbote's commentary, which makes up the majority of the novel. Within the line-by-line analysis are various asides about Kinbote's home nation of Zembla, it's deposed King Charles II, and the mysterious assassin Gradus who had long sought to kill King Charles. Throughout Kinbote's commentary are assertions about his influence over Shade in how he wrote the poem, that Kinbote's fabled recollections about Zembla inspired Shade, despite no explicit references to Zembla in the poem. Everything about Kinbote, his relationship to Shade, and his relationship to his own ancestral home, seem ludicrous; it all feels so outrageously forged that Kinbote could never be taken at face value, and perhaps even his identity as a character in the novel we are reading is suspect.
The novel, and the fictional texts within it, weave an entangled web of postmodern untruth. We get no definitive answers about our suspicions that, for instance, Kinbote is in fact King Charles living in exile, or that none of the Zemblan lore is real, and is all a product of Kinbote's undeniable insanity. Even within each narrative trajectory, there are layers. If we follow the notion that everything Kinbote says is made up, then it becomes reasonable to read the figures of his home country as metaphors; both King Charles and Gradus appear to be different versions of Kinbote. This is peculiar, given that Gradus is trying to kill Charles, and even more peculiar when, at the end, a seemingly real Gradus kills John Shade, by accident, when he meant to kill Kinbote.
Are you confused ? Do these narrative tunnels seem like they lead nowhere but deeper into themselves? In Pale Fire, the point is uncertainty; it is a referential maze that offers no clear exit. But there are opportunities to delight in the chaos. Nabokov's novel reads well as an ode to great literature and poetry, where the point often has little to do with closure, but rather with submission to the mercy of art itself. We are confronted with various intertextual references to works of literature throughout, which is fitting given that it's book about a poem and about obsession with an artist and his art.
The references are many. Shakespeare's name is invoked often. In some cases, we get the mere mention titles, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear. Others offer more detail. For instance, Timon of Athens references appear throughout Kinbote's commentary of Shade's poem. The title, Pale Fire, comes from a line in Shakespeare's tragedy about the foolishly generous turned misanthropic Athenian. Early in the novel, Kinbote compares himself to Timon, who lives in a cave with no library. Are we to read this as a self-assertion of generosity, or perhaps misanthropy? It reads peculiar that Shade, a literary scholar, has no books with him, even in his temporary lodgings - he has settled in a motel to write his commentary about Shade. The mysteries in the seemingly trivial reference may carry a great deal of weight, but it's the uncertainty of the significance that makes the reference compelling.
The array of Pale Fire's literary references is dizzying when considered one by one. Other than Shakespeare, there are interspersed links to Keats, Proust, Joyce, Wordsworth. Coleridge, Poe - the list goes on and on. Perhaps for some, the most interesting references are to Nabokov's own work - he mentions both a Hurricane Lolita and a professor Pnin, both allusions to major characters from two of his other most significant novels.
There's much joy to be found in immersing oneself into the mysteries of art. It's a rare form of submission, one that we sometimes feel when we look at a transcendental work, a painting that leaves us speechless. Nabokov offers us a painting in the form of a novel; the purpose of the work goes beyond plot or characters or arcs, but finds itself in the mystery of the text's meaning, and Nabokov deepens that mystery by making it about not only this text, Pale Fire, but about every other text in relation to it. This is the joy of intertextuality in practice, when one text becomes about all other texts, and we are forced to abandon the search for "meaning", as we are made to revel in the delight of art for art's sake.
The "Cells, interlinked" references in Blade Runner 2049, and the other coded references to the book in that film, pay homage to the mysterious joy of intertextuality. Here's a reading to consider. K, in the Blade Runner sequel, is tasked with tracking down and killing the child of a Replicant, who has been missing for many years. At a certain point in the film, he comes to believe that he is in fact the very child he is hunting, and that he's not a Replicant at all. When considered in relation to Pale Fire, The eerie similarities of both works' plots become undeniable; Gradus the assassin, hunting King Charles, who both may be the same person, is too irresistible a similarity to K hunting himself to be a coincidence. Our capacity for analysis leads us down this rabbit hole of intertextual deconstruction, where the answer isn't important, but that we pose the question in the first place. What is Pale Fire really about? This question isn't meant to be answered directly; it's meant to lead us into a maze of artistic revelry in which we can delight.
In the finale of Parts Unknown's seventh season, Anthony Bourdain goes to Buenos Aires. Anyone familiar with the Argentine capital knows it's home to endless food and drink, an intense nightlife, and a looming air of inhibition enough to humble the wildest traveler. So, for an episode of Bourdain's most immersive show, it's reasonable to assume it would be a total bacchanal. However, the episode turns out to be somber and bizarre. Bourdain takes full advantage of the fact that Argentina is the country with the highest percentage of its population in some form of psychotherapy, as he spends much of the episode in a psychiatrist's chair, reflecting on his struggles with depression. At one point, presumably joking, he considers the existential terror of his nomadic second life: "I will find myself in an airport, for instance, and I'll order an airport hamburger. It's an insignificant thing, it's a small thing, it's a hamburger, but it's not a good one. Suddenly I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days."
When it aired in 2016, the episode seemed like a cheeky, philosophical departure from its usually energetic tone. Viewed today, a year and a half after Bourdain's suicide, it is haunting and heartbreaking.
What's perhaps most fascinating about this episode of Parts Unknown is how it reflects on stigmas surrounding mental health by analyzing the state of therapy in a country where mental health is practically destigmatized. Bourdain may have been famous, but he has always represented the restaurant industry as an insider, being one of the few celebrity chefs that maintained tangible connections to all the line cooks and busboys of the world through his constant reflections on the state of industry, and on the supposed masochism it takes to work in that industry. To read the book Kitchen Confidential today is to be confronted with the same truths as when it was published twenty years ago, that to work in a restaurant is to grind your body to dust for terrible money because you love it or because you embody the punk/fuck-up spirit that Bourdain did when he was cooking.
Nobody talks about mental health in restaurants. I've worked in the Toronto restaurant industry for much of my life, and it's a completely elusive topic. I don't presume to think this is a problem unique to the restaurant industry, but there is a particularly prevalent issue within the industry, where we tend to blame most problems on long-established industry standards. Stigmas around mental health are fed by this dynamic within the industry. If you work in a restaurant, you are expected to grind. Grind, keep grinding, and don't stop grinding until the job is done, and then tomorrow do it all over again. Sometimes this means 18-hour days for young cooks. Sometimes this means two weeks in a row without a day off. Sometimes (all the time?) it means never taking a break that of course all workers in any industry are legally entitled to in Canada. It's not just cooks and dishwashers either. Established chefs, servers, bartenders – all endure extreme hours and potentially dangerous conditions regularly. Anthony Bourdain becomes significant here because he was one of the first lenses through which the world could see these conditions in a modern context. But, what he said, what we all say, when asked why it's like this, is, "Hey, that’s just the industry." There is a standard of stoic suffering that allows the industry to function.
Much of the focus, when it comes to the grind of restaurant life, is on the physical toll it can take on the body. Rarely do you hear about the effects on the mind. This is likely because of the way that stigmas about complaining circulate within the industry. In order to survive in restaurants, you put your head down and grind, and god help you if you complain. For someone to admit that they were feeling depressed would not only betray the silence around mental health, it would also violate the stigmas of the industry. For far too long, the default response to a problem working in a restaurant has been, "Hey, that's just the industry," and this is fundamentally detrimental to the effort of de-stigmatizing and treating mental illness.
In 2018, a friend of mine that I'd bartended with for years committed suicide. He was someone I respected and admired deeply, yet I had no idea he suffered from depression, as he never spoke about it. I don't believe his silence about his mental illness was a result of him being a restaurant guy, but they are not entirely unrelated either. He was a consummate professional; he showed up on time every day (having cycled all the way from Oakville, rain or shine!), worked diligently and tirelessly, and never, ever complained. I don't want to suggest that if things had been different, we could have helped him more. The point is broader than that – we must, as an industry, find ways to get past these stigmas that result in silence on serious issues. As long as the stigmas exists, as long as bad industry standards go unchecked, these problems will not improve.
Some very good progress has been made in recent years when it comes to fighting bad restaurant industry standards in Toronto. Jen Agg, for instance, is a restaurateur who works very hard to expose and combat toxic bro culture and sexual harassment in kitchens. Taylor Clarke, known more commonly as Chef Grant Soto, became an Instagram sensation for his constant roasting of Toronto's most exploitative restaurant owners, until his death from an opioid overdose last year; Clarke himself was a long-time sufferer of depression. The passive acceptance of Hell's Kitchen-style abuse from chefs is waning, as employees are finding their voices now more than ever. People are becoming more aware of workers' rights, and the channels through which to claim those rights. But still, there is much work to be done in order to de-stigmatize mental illness in workplaces in general, let alone in restaurants, to get us to a place where, if nothing else, people feel they can talk about mental health.
An oyster shucker once said to me, "All oyster shuckers are crazy." When I asked him to elaborate, he confidently explained that anyone who shucks oysters for a living, including himself, suffers from mental illness. When I asked why, he shrugged, and said, "That's just the way it is." Incidentally, this shucker did suffer a severe episode related to his mental health weeks after that conversation, and only missed two days of work. We can't know the plight of every restaurant worker who suffers from a mental illness, but we can get to a place where the default is a space for more open conversation. This starts with destabilizing the harmful standards that normalizes workers suffering in silence and never complaining. Anthony Bourdain's confessions in an Argentine shrink's office may have seemed like good moody fun at the time, but to see it now is to be reminded of the real-life consequences of bad industry standards; it is to be reminded of our conditioning to not hear a restaurant person when they are calling out for help.
As this godforsaken lump of a decade nears its end, and we stare into the abyss of our dying future, I give thanks for all the bleak, evil, non-mainstream, heavy as fuck metal we have been blessed with all decade long. I truly do not know how I would cope with the void of existence without it.
So here is my list of what I think were the top ten best HEAVY albums of the decade. For the sake of clarity, I should explain heavy means anything that's fucking heavy. Maybe I'll make one of these lists next week for the best not-heavy releases of the decade. Probably not though.
Here's some honorable mentions first:
Anaal Nathrakh - Vanitas
Converge - All We Love We Leave Behind
Dead In The Dirt - The Blind Hole
Friendship - Hatred
Full Of Hell and The Body - One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache
Infernal Coil - Within A World Forgotten
Mind Eraser - Glacial Reign
Mournful Congregation - The Book Of Kings
Nortt - Endeligt
Primitive Man - Scorn
Okay, here's the list, goddamn it:
10) Indian - From All Purity (2014)
The American doom metal scene came into its own in the 2000s, putting aside the extended super-slow crush of European funeral doom or sludge for something grimier and less accessible to the old-school doom fans. Bands like Primitive Man, Thou, Lord Mantis, and Admiral Angry led the charge with some downright filthy instalments in this genre, but it was Indian's From All Purity that stole my heart and stuck ice picks in my balls. This is furious, unrelenting, painful-to-the-ears fucking doom metal and is criminally underrated by American standards.
9) Innumerable Forms - Punishment In Flesh (2018)
This album is a crash course on how to sound unique without defying any genre conventions. This is face-meltingly heavy death metal, played menacingly slow, and fun. Yes fun. There's something ever so slightly tongue in cheek about this record, which adds to its many flavors and makes it endlessly listenable. And I fucking love that album cover. Is it not reminiscent of Martin Sheen's Willard emerging from the water to assassinate Kurtz near the end of Apocalypse Now? I'd make a clichéd pun about the smell of Napalm in the morning, but clichés are not metal, and Innumerable Forms is the most metal fucking thing ever.
8) Harm's Way - Isolation (2011)
Society has fallen. Humanity is a blight upon the earth. A cancer. People are of no value. Balls-to-the-wall nihilism can be a hard sell in a hardcore record, but Chicago straight-edge soldiers Harm's Way hit their stride like a baseball bat to the jaw with this 2011 opus which barks anti-humanity in every breath. While they have produced a number of decent outings since, Isolation remains Harm's Way's most confident and brash attempt to convince people that the world would probably be better off if they, er, we, weren't around. People are of no value, says Mark Twain's Satan in one of the greatest samples ever in hardcore. Harm's Way are worth loving for their samples alone. Even better - their music hits like this.
7) Bell Witch - Four Phantoms (2015)
Bell Witch offer a complete picture of what heavy, narratively-inclined doom metal should look like. I don't have much to say about it because I think it speaks for itself. It is metal that evokes many emotions: sadness, despair, fear, wonder, even some joy. I can write about all that til the cows come home, but the only way to get it is to just listen. Eat a pile of mushrooms and listen.
6) Vastum - Hole Below (2015)
Leila Abdul-Rauf is a busy lady. She plays in three active bands and has a solo project where she plays everything. Her most accomplished work is as the lead guitarist, song-writer, and back-up vocalist for the groovy, super-catchy, fucking heavy old-school death metal outfit Vastum. Some of the lyrics here would have corpse-Freud ripping off his rotten fingernails trying to pry his way out of his grave so he can psychoanalyze Abdul-Rauf and the Vastum crew. This is sick and catchy as hell. It's not breaking new ground, but it is doing old ground very, very well. Old, haunted, burial ground-type ground.
5) Blood Incantation - Starspawn (2016)
Last year, Colorado death-metallers Blood Incantation released a new album called Hidden History of The Human Race. Reviews appeared on Pitchfork, Vice's Noisey imprint, and a host of other mainstream music sites. It's a really good album, and deserves the praise it gets. Most of these write-ups would have you believe that this is some kind of transcendent metal record, kinda like what Sunbather was for Deafheaven back in 2013, in that it has mainstream appeal while still being extreme. I think this is a bit of a lie. The fact of the matter is that normal people today are getting wise to Blood Incantation because of Starspawn. Their 2016 release was so good that it slowly permeated the metal world and spread beyond the reach, like blood leaking from a pile of bodies in the apartment above you, inevitably running down your walls and pooling onto your floor. No one in the mainstream music world realized it until now. I kept reading about the hype that surrounded their latest release, and I honestly feel that "hype" is a misplaced sentiment. The hype wasn't about the album itself. I believe that people had just talked about Starspawn for three fucking years, and the normies heard the whispers in the hall. If you don't know what the fuck I'm talking about, drop whatever you're doing and go listen to Starspawn. Blood Incantation are being slotted by the metal world as the future of death metal. The metal world is 100% right.
4) Puce Mary - The Spiral (2016)
You won't find a Metal-Archives page for Puce Mary. You won't see her name in many metal magazines. Far and away the least conventionally "metal" entry on this list, Puce Mary is Danish noise artist Frederikke Hoffmeier's pen name, and The Spiral is her most complete and existentially terrifying work. Not since the first time my poor virgin ears were tortured by the hollow wails of the legendary Emit has music made me want to shit myself out of fear this badly. This is the sound of elevator cables choking your mother to death. It's the sound of your father's pathetic orgasm that made you. It's the sound of everything you love revealed to be a cruel joke, and by the way the children down the street are skinning your cat alive. Evil, artistic, vicious stuff that your parents would never call "music," and frankly one of the best noise records we may ever hear.
3) Gorguts - Colored Sands (2013)
2019 saw Tool release their first album in 13 years. It was perhaps the most anticipated release of it's kind, in a decade that saw a notable amount of metal acts take exceptionally long layovers between records. Long layoffs are to be expected in this business, especially in an era of dizzying nostalgia, where reunions are more marketable than original products, and often these reunion records result in more duds than gems. Frankly, I thought the new Tool was mediocre, but what are fans supposed to expect with so much ring-rust? There was one mega-hyped metal record this decade that took twelve years to make, from a band presumed dead, that delivered enough payload to immaculately impregnate your sister. Montreal tech-death wizards Gorguts did something amazing with Colored Sands - they made us not care about the twelve-year hiatus one bit. That's how good it is. The album works best listened to as a whole, but the title track is unto itself the most perfect death metal track of the decade, and maybe the 21st century.
2) Esoteric - Paragon Of Dissonance (2011)
In the first season of HBO's True Detective, Rustin Cohle says the following: "Back then, the visions...most of the time I was convinced that I'd lost it. But there were other times, I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe." I have felt this sentiment from time to time in my life, but never more than when I listen to Esoteric. Paragon of Dissonance is the hypnotic, terrifying follow-up to 2008's equally gargantuan and impossible The Maniacal Vale. Paragon clocks in at 94 minutes, feature-film length, on a record about which it could be argued has the same narrative ambitions and emotional weight as a serious drama. Or horror. This is some of the finest doom metal ever produced.
1) Full Of Hell - Rudiments Of Mutilation (2013)
The world will not end well. It will go kicking and screaming. If you look carefully, you can see that the earth is a beautiful place. But if you look at us, measured against that beauty, you can see what Dylan Walker is going on about in the first track of Full Of Hell's sophomore full-length, when the words "the dichotomy of all that is lush and rotten" screech out of his throat. Rudiments of Mutilation is a 24 minute reminder that humans are a rotten plague that deserve to die painfully and then go extinct and never come back. This is 24 minutes of hell. 24 minutes that's actually 75,000 minutes because that's roughly how much time I spent playing this shit on repeat since it came out. 24 minutes in contempt of life. It's beautiful. Truly beautiful.
It becomes clear in the final episode of Too Old To Die Young that Nicolas Winding Refn's neon-drenched, Tarkovsky-slow, ultraviolent streaming show is a scathing indictment of modern America. This isn't too extreme a revelation, given that modern America deserves its fair share of criticism, but it does feel significant in the context of Refn's unholy devotion to style above all else. Explicit displays of politics are not typical of the Danish auteur.
TOTDY is one of the most confrontational works of art I have ever encountered. It forces you to sit with extended moments so intentionally challenging that it would be an easy assumption, albeit a false one, that Refn's goal is to piss off his audience. A few times, during some of the most drawn out segments of dialogue, I found myself jumping out of my seat and questioning my own sanity. It's not Lynchian, though comparisons to David Lynch may seem like a given. This doesn't have the charming breed of all-consuming weirdness that only Lynch can pull off. No, this is its own, new thing. The violence can be so brutal even seasoned Refn fans might opt to look away. It is also undeniably "problematic"; rape, pedophilia, and human sex trafficking make regular appearances as plot devices, and the treatment and development of women on the show, uh, leaves room for improvement. I put the word problematic in quotes not because I feel it's a banal or overused term, but because it feels like these elements are strategically placed in TOTDY in order to serve some kind of larger purpose. So edgy, right? These are not errors of judgement, they are intentional challenges of ethical limits. This show is a test.
But here's the flip side to the problem - i LOVE watching this show. Almost immediately after finishing the full pulverizing 13 hours, I wanted to start again. It's aesthetically and cinematographically as beautiful as TV can get. But there's a sense of confused guilt that comes with enjoying something like this; If it is so ethically challenging, what does it say about viewers who enjoy it? Are we all just sickos?
Let's analyze our hero for a moment. Martin Jones, played so stone-facedly by Miles Teller that he could in fact be a replicant, is a cop who moonlights as an assassin. His emotionlessness makes it seem that he cares as much about killing as he does about choosing what color hoodie to wear. But at some point he begins to feel uncomfortable with killing people who don't deserve to die (based on his, uh, inscrutable ethical standards). He asks the gangsters he works for to assign him the worst of the worst, the most evil marks they have, and he refuses payment for these baddies. At the same time he becomes associated with Diana (Jena Malone) and Viggo (John Hawkes). Diana is a caseworker and somewhat of a self-prescribed mystic that runs her own business whereby she tracks down pedophiles, rapists, and other such scum, and assigns Viggo, a sickly ex-cop and full-time apocalyptic proselytizer, to eliminate them. Martin admires what they do; he believes in the righteousness of it. Martin also happens to be dating Janey, aged 17. Martin is 30. They began dating when she was 16. It is unclear what we are supposed to do with the fact that our hero who kills pedophiles is also ostensibly a pedophile. Janey's dad, played oh so creepily by William Baldwin, is a billionaire with an affinity for his own daughter, as he's always commenting on her beauty, and even admits that he fantasizes about her sexually. Take a wild guess who he's maybe supposed to represent. Oh, and he jerks off to the thought of her in front of Martin. Martin kills him right after.
So, is Martin a good guy? Is he a bad guy? Antihero? He doesn't really qualify as any of these things, but he is our protagonist, so we are forced to deal with this world through his POV, even though we get nothing from him in terms of emotion or analysis. The only moment that seems to resemble a feeling comes when he tells Viggo that he had killed a woman recently and it made him feel empty.
It's possible that Martin represents the complicity we all share in allowing the fucked up world in which we live to exist. But I think that's letting him off too easily. Truthfully, I think Martin is an evil character, and I think Refn is showing us that in present day America, our heroes are bad, and evil is complicated. Worshipping guns, despising talk of social justice, disdaining any notion of real equality, praising capitalism, caging the children of asylum seekers - I could go on and on about some of the less savory American values that we hear about today. "Heroes" can indeed be horrible.
Martin is not the only righteous killer on the show, but he is the only one that doesn't have a fully developed grasp on his identity. Viggo and Diana are confident in the righteousness of their operation. And we haven't even talked about Yaritza yet. Without spoiling the pure joy of watching Cristina Roldo play the absolutely terrifying cartel wife-cum-terminator of sex-traffickers, I will simply say that I can't remember a character in film or TV who kills with such unflinching certainty, such rigid adherence to her own invented code of ethics. Omar in The Wire you say? Don't even try to make that comparison here. Omar is merely human. Yaritza is the High Priestess of Death. In the hands of a lesser director she would feel silly and not believable. In Refn's hands she is pure terror.
There's something to be said about a non-American director making a work that is so specifically interested in the American heart of darkness. Refn comes from a country that regularly ranks among the happiest and most stable in the world, but he has become unabashedly fixated on the American question in recent years. Drive and The Neon Demon, like TOTDY, take place in Los Angeles, as they use the city as an entryway into various swathes of the American underbelly. TOTDY uses it as a backdrop, and L.A. factors into the story less meaniggfully than in Drive or Neon Demon; with TOTDY we feel that this could be any part of America, as the underbelly is so extensive that it doesn't seem bound by geography. Only God Forgives also focuses on Americans, but in that film they are expats, living in Thailand, and ultimately their presence in this foreign country causes a cascading frenzy of violence and depravity. It is also a film about underbellies, and about what happens when American sensibilities interfere with an underworld that they fail to properly understand or control. TOTDY has an element of this as well; the main subplot of the show deals with a Mexican drug cartel and how the convergence of the cartel's push for power in LA crashes head-first into Martin's pseudo-Punisher operation. These are worlds colliding and unfolding; underbellies becoming exposed to the light of day when they're not supposed to be. Pandora's boxes. The result is always carnage, made Refn-beautiful.
There's another Danish filmmaker that tends to engage with the darkest possible corners of American psyche (at least in his most recent few films). Lars Von Trier has been a constant source of controversy and a pin cushion for criticism, particularly when it comes to misogyny in his work. While TOTDY could also be read as having just as much problematic shit as many of Von Trier's works, I think there is a fundamental difference. Von Trier victimizes women in his films because his plots call for it, seemingly because he wants to push them to their limits. His latest film, The House That Jack Built, about a serial killer of women that we are somehow supposed to sympathize with (sigh) is almost impossible to read as anything but a test of the audience's endurance, and as a completely cynical take on the apathy of modern culture. With Refn, and specifically TOTDY, the violence is making a complicated point about what it means to exist in today's America. While it is also a test, it's not meant to see how horrified we can get, but rather it is test of our sense of what it an ethical spectrum looks like in 2019's America. It's not that everyone's experience as an American is the experience of TOTDY. This is a show about the underbelly, which most people don't brush up against. Those unfortunate enough to pull the sheet back and stare at the bloody mess will see the place in which they exist for all it's gory, abject misery. Refn is asking his audience if they can handle the ugliness of it, and more troublingly, what they're willing to do about it.
There's a scene in the final episode of TOTDY where Diana monologues about the future. She is home alone, speaking to no one but herself, but she is angled mostly toward us. She speaks at length about where she believes society is headed, and it's not good. Fascism, racism, hate, greed, violence, climate catastrophe, you name it. And worst of all, she explains, the people will embrace this future-hell. It is us she is really referring to, the viewers. We are the people that will embrace the descent into chaos toward which we appear to be heading. I don't think Refn is being cynical with this scene. I think he is doing what he does best - he is challenging his audience. He is challenging us to prove him wrong.
Knut Hamsun is one of my favorite authors. His 1890 debut novel, Hunger, about a destitute, mad writer that subsists on pennies and nearly starves to death, shaped my appreciation of modernist literature. The novel was somewhat autobiographical, as Hamsun himself did endure several bouts of desperate poverty in his 20s, which made it all the more sensational when Hunger's success catapulted him from a poor unknown to a literary star in his native Norway. He enjoyed an illustrious career and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1920.
Though Hamsun was successful and influential, his politics weren't great. He was, you could say, somewhat of a racist. By that I mean that he was very clearly racist in his early days, writing about the dangers of miscegination and diversity in America, and evolved to become a totally batshit Nazi fanboy by the time he was an old man. During WW2 he showed ardent support for Germany and for the Nazi goal of a dominant Aryan race. He donated his Nobel Prize to Joseph Goebbels as a gift in 1943. After Hitler's death, he wrote a eulogy in which he described Hitler as "A warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.” Though Hamsun was charged for treason for his Nazi sympathies, those charges were dropped when it was determined that he was mentally ill, a diagnosis that he denied until his death.
I often find myself unsure of how to reflect on Hamsun as a personal influence. I will never not love Hunger, but I'm not sure if I will or should be able to separate Hamsun the author from Hamsun the Nazi cheerleader. Which brings us to the larger question of what on earth we're expected to do when the artists we love turn out to be monsters.
Someone that's been the subject of a heated and similar discussion since his death is Jahseh Onfroy, known more commonly as XXXTentacion. Onfroy, who was murdered earlier this year, shot in his car during a robbery, was a groundbreaking and hugely talented rapper, and was also notorious for his various violent crimes. At the time of his death, he was awaiting trial for the aggravated assault of his pregnant girlfriend. My comparison of Onfroy to Hamsun might seem silly, as their art, crimes, and roles in society are entirely different, but both represent the same thing in the context of this discussion - beloved artists with horrible conduct.
XXXTentacion isn't unique simply because he's an artist that's done and said bad things. Of those we have plenty - Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Orson Scott Card, H.P. Lovecraft, Terrence Howard, Lucien Freud - the list could go on and on. But one particularly troubling element about XXXTentacion is that his art seems inextricably linked to his transgressions. His lyrics and tone are stunningly melancholic. Many of his tracks are about depression, some more obviously than others. His music is also rife with misogyny and violence, but this is not necessarily unique to him or to hip-hop or music in general. His albums 17 and ? open with spoken word intros, both of which are chillingly honest messages about Onfroy's self-reflection and his expectations of his listeners. These intros make explicit his insistence that these records are meant to be consumed as pure exercises in reading a suffering human's soul, and that in exchange for what he's offering he expects not money or fame, but loyalty. Take that for what you will.
These confessionals are difficult to parse in the larger context of Onfroy's life, because they demand sympathy in such a way that suggests that he is himself entirely a victim. Onfroy certainly had a difficult early life; a staple of the narrative of his upbringing is his mostly absent mother, something he has attributed to his lifelong struggles with depression. But any physical or emotional distresses he endured as a youth become blended into his very outward expression of these struggles, not just through music, but through real violence. As a teen he was regularly in trouble, and served two sentences in juvenile detention centers. He gave a brutal beating to a cellmate for being gay, the details of which are hard to stomach. The charges against him for his assault on his pregnant girlfriend Geneva Ayala detail a horrific incident of violence and also reveal a pattern of systemic physical and emotional abuse that had been ongoing for some time.
I find myself unsettled by the notion that his music and his violence are inextricably linked, as it suggests such an unacceptable standard for authenticity, as if his depression, and his violence and misogyny, were necessary elements to his success. Many of his fans have supported him despite his crimes, and many have accused Ayala of lying about the abuses against her, and have characterized him as an unfairly targeted victim of the media. When he was killed there was an outpouring of support from musicians such as Diplo, J.Cole, T-Pain, Travis Barker, and Kanye West, all of whom declared publicly their condolences and their praise of his work and talent. One of the common celebrated aspects of his music is the intimacy it builds with the audience, as if he made these bleak hip-hop diary entries just for you, as an outlet for your own personal struggles, and this sense of intimacy is reflected in the loyalty of his fan base. I may not like the argument about the connection between his art and his crimes, but it feels as though that connection is real and even celebrated among fans.
In 1967, Roland Barthes wrote The Death Of The Author, the seminal work of poststructuralism that asserted that texts must be consumed without consideration of the author's biography or narrative intent, and purely for the sake of the text itself. When we apply this condition of necessary separation to artists whose biographical details might mar our approach to their work, we are afforded the space for ambivalence. I can be a huge fan of Knut Hamsun's fiction while being critical of the things he did and said later in life, taking an overall ambivalent stance toward him as an artist. With XXXTentacion, such ambivalence becomes impossible, because the work is inseparable from the man. There is only polarization. Either he is despicable or beloved.
Perhaps most striking aspect of the conversation about XXXTentacion is the narrative of redemption that surrounded his death and the months leading up to it. Many of his most famous supporters would draw attention to the charitable work he had been doing, and the suggestion that despite his violence, he was on a path to redemption and that he would inevitably make amends for what he had done. Whether this was a believable suggestion or not became more or less irrelevant when he died, but the redemption conversation is complicated by a narrative that ran parallel to it - that Onfroy's death was always imminent. This configuration makes his violence seem irreconcilable because he was always destined to die before he had a chance, but it also suggests an almost metaphysical component to his mythology - to live and make art with much ferocity and negativity would invite death to stalk him more hungrily than it does the rest of us. Whether Onfroy could have ever properly made amends if he hadn't died young is not a very useful question. But it is important to consider that regardless of the impact of his art, which is the impact that will be remembered, there are also impacts on his victims, the effects of which, no matter what mythological space XXXTentacion occupies in death, will be felt for a long time.
artwork by King Jediah
Dystopic as it may be, Black Mirror is perhaps our most prescient fictional take on the future of technological progress. Its immediacy tends to make it particularly unsettling, and creator Charlie Brooker is about as maniacal and sadistic a show-runner as we've ever seen. This show is dark. Really dark. We feel it in the fabric of virtually every episode. So, among this anthology of society's potential futures, which instalment is darkest? Spoilers ahead, obvs.
19) San Junipero
It's easy to have assumed that the only one with a true happy ending would win in the lightness category. Happy endings aside, San Junipero is bathed in sunlight and gives viewers stunning coastal vistas during all of the non-nighttime scenes. Plus an 80s motif is always a strong ingredient for good vibes, though maybe for some that's the cocaine talking. The episode feels like sci-fi Baywatch meets Sci-fi Saved By The Bell. And the futuristic technology aspect is pretty heartwarming too. Okay, happy fun time ends now.
18) Hang The DJ
One of several installations about the future of romance, this episode does a tremendous job maintaining tension in a context that is not naturally expected to be tense. But all that work is wiped away by the cheeseball ending, and the tension that had been accumulating evaporates as the episode becomes a muted version of what you probably expected; a predictable celebration of future Tinder, but without the trademark Black Mirror sadism. And there's bad TV sex. Maybe that's the darkest part.
17) The Entire History of You
A well-made episode with one significant flaw: it builds a story on a fascinating and realistic technology – an implanted memory recording system that allows people to PVR any experience they've had and watch it on a playback – and wastes that tech on a plot about domestic squabbles and petty jealousy. No one gets nearly as brutalized as they could have been, given what some episodes do to their heroes. The concluding message is that people fantasize about past lovers. You needed some fancy technology to tell you that?
16) The Waldo Moment
In the Trump era, this episode is easily criticized for being less interesting and less ridiculous than our current political reality. A crass, animated comedian bear gains popularity and becomes encouraged by the powers that be to run for office. We've seen similar concepts in fiction before, but more compellingly we've seen this in real life, most notably with John Gnarr, the uneducated comedian who served, rather successfully, as mayor of Reykjavik from 2010 to 2014. Sure there is something darkly comic about the plot of The Waldo Moment, but compared to reality it's a bedtime story.
This episode tends to lose people somewhere along the believability spectrum. Marie, An overprotective single mother, has her daughter Sara implanted with a device that allows her to monitor Sara's every move, and watch life through her eyes. I don't know if I buy the argument that no reasonable parent would do this, though the climactic scene, in which we see the normally intellectual and tempered Sara beating her mother half to death with her iPad, does feel hard to believe, even after she's discovered that her mother roofied her with morning after pills. The implications of the technology are somewhat unsettling, mostly because of the perceived intensification in helicopter parenting in real life, but the episode lets its viewers off the hook too easily. Nothing happens here that you couldn't see more vividly and less pleasantly in a Larry Clark or Harmony Korine film.
14) USS Callister
Jesse Plemons advances the narrative that he is rock solid at playing a creep. We first saw him as Todd, a dull-eyed, disassociated nice guy that unflinchingly murders women and children in Breaking Bad. Here he plays Robert, an executive programmer for a giant online video game with some nefarious at-home behavior within that same video game. The episode's darkness stems mostly from the recent emersion of the concept of incels, which became a well-known term after a terrorist attack in Toronto left ten people dead, all in the name of misogyny. Robert's character reads very much like an incel, making his behavior particularly off-putting, now more-so than at the time of the episode's release. But outside the incel narrative, the episode is mostly a fun romp, full of comic relief and Shatner-era Star Trek imagery, so the darkness factor is somewhat mitigated.
13) Shut Up and Dance
Black Mirror is pretty darn good at flipping the script on its viewers. Several episodes contain effective twists and turns that would make M Night Shyamalan's head spin. The so-called twist in this episode, however, is not one of the good ones. In fact it's appalling, and hard to understand as a writing decision. But without it, this episode would feel like an elaborate practical joke, which would work fine as an instalment in the Black Mirror universe. So when you do find out that the episode is hinged on the fact that the teenage protagonist enjoys jacking off to child porn, you can't help but scratch your head.
This episode, in my opinion, suffers much more from the believability problem than Arkangel. A too-chill-for-his-own-good American traveler desperate for cash finds himself subject to some pretty gnarly cerebral experiments. The results are no bueno. Believability is a big deal in Black Mirror; every episode is a reflection on the potential future (or present) of how technology can royally fuck us, and this installment doesn't quite live up to the likelihood test (queue the "this shit has actually happened, man" comments). But to its credit, Playtest is legitimately scary. It's Black Mirror's most direct attempt at horror (along with maybe Metalhead, which we'll talk about later), and it's chillingly effective as a work of genre fiction.
11) Men Against Fire
Men Against Fire doesn't take itself seriously enough for what it's trying to sell. It's laden with clichés and big chunks of exposition in the last act that give viewers the impression that it really doesn't want to commit to the grim reality that it fictionalizes. The notion that soldiers are sometimes made to kill innocent civilians for political reasons beyond their control is not confined to fiction, let alone science fiction. Had the episode been framed with more heart and less schlock it could certainly have been one of the darkest.
Outstanding acting, writing, and directing make an episode with no killing, and no real threat of any violence, pretty goddamn ominous. Perhaps it's the juxtaposition of a setting well in the future with the ubiquity of social media that feel desperately close to our own that makes this episode so unsettling. In Nosedive, all of modern society relies on a social media platform where users are ranked based on their day-to-day interactions and the maintenance of their online profiles. Wait, isn't this supposed to be happening for real in China? It's a challenging plot because, like The Waldo episode, it doesn't sound all that shocking when compared to reality. But Rashida Jones' and Mike Schur's script is so tight, Bryce Dallas Howard's face so believably anguished despite her attempts to appear Instagram-happy, and Joe Wright's directing so lushly reflective of the impending future of social media, that it ends up being one of the series' best. And it leaves you, the viewer, in a state of crazed misery not dissimilar to the kind you might feel after an hour of relentless Instagram pleasure-cruising.
9) Hated in the Nation
This episode could have scored higher on this list if it didn't feel so procedural. Like seriously, how often do you feel genuinely tormented by an episode of CSI? The plot does have a significant enough creep factor, in terms of what it says about how public outrage and the increasingly popular act of public shaming are becoming dangerous forms of social currency. Here that currency has fatal results. Say that last line out loud. CSI-level cheese, right? Well, that's this episode. Robotic killer bees? Really?
8) Be Right Back
Widely considered the best episode of Black Mirror to date, Be Right Back is a haunting meta-ghost story and a sharp, dystopian reflection on love, death, and grief. Like Nosedive, it manages to get under the skin with hardly any violence or death (well, one death), but for entirely different reasons. The premise is simple and almost trite; Boy and girl are in love. Boy dies. Girl learns there is technology available that allows her to still communicate with him. And touch him, and see him, and have sex with him. Sounds great right? Charlie Brooker regularly demonstrates that he is just as adept at analyzing the nuances of modern romance as he is at predicting the most dystopic possibilities of technological progress. And that last scene is the kind of stuff Hitchcock would be proud of.
7) The National Anthem
The first, the original, the one where the Prime Minister of England fucks a pig on live TV. Imagine having never seen the show and being introduced to it like that. It's the audacity of a TV pilot to go there that makes this episode as impressively dark as it is. If this appeared in the third season it might have meant less, and the vulgarity of the premise would not have been as impactful. Less pearls would have been clutched, but less faces would have been twisted in voyeuristic delight.
6) Fifteen Million Merits
The most futuristic episode of Black Mirror, 15M Merits can be a difficult world-building pill to swallow. Bing, played exceptionally by Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya, lives in a sort-of digital world, where subjects earn merits in order to eventually perform in front of American Idol-style judges for a chance at greatness, and, we can only assume, digital transcendence of some kind. In this world, all is commodified and commercialized to an obscene degree, but it's so well directed that an episode with such a heavy requirement of suspension of disbelief becomes engrossing and all too immersive. The darkest part is that we may already be in that world now, repeating the endless drone of consumption and production for the corporate gods that lord over us. This is what The Singularity will actually look like, Ray.
5) The Black Museum
Everyone loves those clip-show episodes of The Simpsons right? Right? Just me? You know, I'm surprised they didn't do clip-show episodes of The Wire or The Sopranos. Well The Sopranos kinda did, with some of Tony's more extensive dream sequences. Anyways. This episode's pretty good, and filled with the sick shit that Black Mirror fans tend to expect. The image of Daniel Lapine staring at himself in the mirror after having just extracted some of his own teeth for pleasure is particularly gruesome. This is a longer episode, with three short stories injected into a pretty slick frame narrative. And though it's not exactly a clip show, there are all kinds of fun little references to previous Black Mirror episodes. Perhaps more importantly than the content of the episode itself is the reflection that this can be read as a representation of what will happen to Black Mirror once the show's fictional technologies become real, or even obsolete; we'll be left with a wax museum of obsolescence, and lord knows wax museums aren't creepy at all. Also worth noting, if you're a fan of 90's black comedies, this episode opens with a cinematographic and musical sequence that feels nearly identical to the intro to Oliver Stone's criminally underrated U-Turn, and that flick is dark as hell.
4) White Christmas
Like the episode that precedes it on this list, White Christmas is closer to feature length, and comprised of three short interlinked stories that are part of a larger frame narrative. Don Draper's charm is alive and well, and now he's in the future, selling digital clone versions of you that can be implanted into your head to micromanage your daily tasks from within. There are layers of darkness here, both in the frame narrative and in the individual stories. Not a fan of jealous exes killing the fathers of their former lovers? That's fine. Maybe you'll be more entertained by digital indefinite solitary confinement. If that sounds convoluted, well, it is, but it's still a pretty good episode, and remarkably bleak, especially given that it's a Christmas episode. Everyone loves Christmas. It's never a depressing time. Never.
3) White Bear
Perhaps the episode with the most staggering moment of script-flipping in all of Black Mirror's catalogue, White Bear will leave you feeling a little less than happy about the world. For the majority of the episode, something feels amiss. A woman wakes up in a house; she can't remember anything; a flashing TV in front of her displays an enigmatic, creepy icon. She runs; she is chased; her chasers appear armed and dangerous; there are people around, watching, recording with their phones, but they refuse to interact with her. Somehow she never actually gets hurt, despite the constant threat of harm from her hunters. The whole time, you can't help but think "Dang, this whole thing kind of feels like a game." And then they hit you with something so nasty you find it hard to believe. It must be part of the gag, right? Don't watch it on a bad day.
Ah the beautiful, terrorizing Metalhead. Odds are the terms DARPA or Boston Dynamics mean more to you now than they did three years ago, yeah? Well, if not, Google them while watching this episode. The shortest, simplest episode of Black Mirror is easily my favorite, and also happens to be the only episode where society is undeniably, completely fucked. It's a common thread these days to hear people extolling the potential dangers of robots and AI. Well, as you might have guessed, nothing is better at representing that anxiety than Black Mirror. Bella, played to her blood-soaked limits by Maxine Peake, runs across a wooded landscape, chased by a dog-sized robot that is hell-bent on killing her. Her post-apocalypse buddies had their brains blasted to bits by the little bastard early on. It made it look easy. The little robot dispatches people with such efficiency that it quickly becomes the most terrifying antagonist of the entire Black Mirror catalogue. While narratively simple, the episode is stylistically quite rich, shot in black and white and scored by the music of Kryszof Penderecki, whose compositions have appeared infamously in such films as The Exorcist and The Shining. Perhaps there's something to be said here about minimalism as a form of good storytelling. Several episodes of Black Mirror suffer from convolution, as is to be expected with a show that introduces new fictional technologies in every instalment. The simplicity here allows the audience to really focus on the terror at hand. This makes for the most intense viewing experience you could ask for. And any release from this tension, once Bella finally, agonizingly dispatches Fido the robotic grim reaper, is crushed by the revelation that there are hundreds, thousands of these death-walkers combing the remaining wasteland that earth has become. Society is, in fact, fucked.
It would be a challenge to find anyone left un-shocked by this ghastly episode. Frankly I'm ambivalent about it, and I think that's being generous. There are some bits to celebrate: the austere vistas of a gorgeously grey and mountainous Iceland; the excellent acting of Andrea Riseborough and Kiran Sonia Sawar; the fairly prescient memory-recording technology on which the episode is hinged. But even after considering these pros, it's difficult to look at Crocodile as more than a deranged misfire. The escalation of violence and cruelty in this episode is so brutal that it becomes nearly unwatchable, even with the majority of the violence occurring off-screen. It might have been more acceptable if it made more sense in terms of character motivation. But Andrea Riseborough's Mia makes decisions that no reasonable person would make, deep dark secrets or not. We're supposed to accept that Mia's mind slowly unravels as guilt and paranoia consume her, but one episode of TV is not enough time to adequately sell this line and the violence behind it. The darkness here really has nothing to do with the technological implications of the episode; it's purely about the brutality inflicted on Mia's innocent victims, one of which is an infant. I would never expect a TV show to use trigger warnings, but this is one of those rare occasions where it feels irresponsible not to.
They let me out to see a picture
Memories are personhood. Or so the programming of a replicant would have you believe. A wooden horse. A fire. An industrial, steel-hued, future-washed MC Escher painting. Your mother. My Mother? Snapshots. They make sense, as implants. As things at once injected, probably plucked from algorithms set by Dr. Ana Stelline. What about us, the humans? Our memories have developed through organic processes over which we have little control. But sometimes, a flicker of a memory, or a deju vu, may feel like it holds a part of the puzzle, one of the keys to that locked room, the inexplicable, transcendent real. Proust's madeleine. Child Ryan Gosling holding a wooden horse. A Unicorn running through the forest in a dream.
I seethed the moment they announced Blade Runner was getting a sequel. It was the most egregious sequel or remake that Hollywood could force down our throats, mostly because of the polarizing beauty and unique marvels of the original. Oh Denis Villeneuve is directing it? BIG DEAL. I'm supposed to give a shit you got a competent director? Wellllll, turns out they actually, finally made a sequel that was worthy of being made. 2049 is a beautiful, menacing, challenging film, one that I will watch into the future. Not only is it a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience unto itself, but it adds new weight to the original. The plot appears to be simple; K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant Blade Runner whose job it is to retire rogue replicants (like Deckard in the original) discovers a haunting relic at the site of a mission; a box, buried near a tree, which contains the bones of a replicant woman, and her remains bear the sure signs that she had been pregnant. Fear that such a discovery could fuel another catastrophic replicant rebellion, K is tasked with finding the child born of the dead replicant and "retiring" it. Another layer - The deceased pregnant replicant was Rachel (Sean Young from the original Blade Runner, Deckard's not-so-self-aware love interest). Worlds unfold. I'll leave the rest to you.
This film is much bigger than the trajectory of its plot, which makes it better than 97% of what Hollywood pumps out. The film has its flaws, certainly. Jared Leto's blind industrialist Niander Wallace is criminally under-explored. Women feel pretty one dimensional here compared to the men. But that sense of depth that the film leaves you with, whether it's real or an implanted feeling injected into our memory systems, it makes you want to consider your own personhood. Could we all be replicants? Are my memories real? Is that one flash from my childhood holding the key to some traumatic mystery that I can't access? Any work of art that makes you contemplate the philosophies behind your existence in this dank pit is a success.
I spent about 25 minutes analyzing the song titles on this record as I was listening to it. Scanning titles such as "I Am a Thought," "I Am Consumed," "I Am Learning," and "Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am," rendered me confused and dumb, but upon a second listen those titles made perfect sense. A coalescence of sonic universes occurs in her left nostril, you can see it there on the album cover, where sensory barriers breakdown, and you enter her aural (ha) domain. Something like cosmic sonic warmth would be a good term to describe the tone of this album. The stars surround you as you listen. Sometimes you feel like you are in outer space. But like, not actual outer space, because there is only silence there. And your head would explode, I think. Or implode. Where's Neil DeGrasse Tyson when you need him? But more like metaphorical outer space. Like the aesthetic of outer space. Sometimes it sounds like you are in a moist indoor zoo pavilion and exotic birds are chirping above you. I listened to this five times in a row yesterday, and I am excited to listen again tomorrow. There are hidden things, sounds and otherwise, buried in every nook and cranny of this record. It's like going on a cosmic easter egg hunt, stoned as hell. Her voice is like a hypnotist that invigorates you rather than charms you to sleep. It is the voice of 2017.
In "Burden of Dreams," the making-of documentary that tries its best to explain what everyone's favorite nihilist was thinking when he made the psychotically ambitious "Fitzcarraldo", a young Werner Herzog gives us the pickle tickle as he waxes on about how goddamn fucking miserable the jungle is. "Nature here is vile and base... of course there is a lot of misery... but it is the same misery that is all around us... the trees here are in misery," ... well shit, better cancel my my trip to the amazon. This is the sample, re-tuned with some distorted heavy duty basso profundo modulation, with which Full Of Hell open Trumpeting Ecstasy. Nowadays, Werner Herzog is a mascot for the pseudo-nihility we all feel when we contemplate the pit, and I'll be damned if we don't all see how funny his schtick is. Full Of Hell tap into something important here. Where previous albums, most notably 2013's Rudiments of Mutilation, took themselves immensely seriously, and to listen to Rudiments is to believe that the world is burning and dying around you, here we have something different; a sliver, a microscopic glimpse of the tongue shoved into the cheek. Hence the Werner at the top of track one to roll out the ash-colored carpet. Oh yeah, the album is rocking good. It's fucking heavy, technically baffling yet still accessible, lightening fast (everyone says "blistering" these days, ugh) grind fused with bits of death metal and a few moments of noise, though there is less experimental work here than on previous outings. Full Of Hell are doing their thing once again, claiming their crown, sitting atop heavy music's pile of skulls. Cool cameo by Nicole Dollanganger on the title track. Misery, all around us.
This album is from 2016, but they have forced me to review it. They play it non-stop, sometimes at an ever-so-faint, creeping volume, where I can just hear the razor-tightening of the cables in the walls; sometimes they play it so loud that my eardrums are crushed and my eyes bleed. Do you remember the first time you saw a David Lynch film? Do you remember the feeling? Do you remember the first time you saw a film by someone trying to imitate Lynch, and you learned to spot the difference between real weird and imitation weird? The difference is that real weird is beautiful; it enchants you as it mystifies you. Puce Mary's The Spiral is exactly that. You can feel yourself running from the predatory creature that stalks you down the alley in the dead of night. You can feel the bolus of saliva tighten in your throat as the razorblade approaches your eyeball. You can feel the dead beneath your feet laughing at you as you walk on their graves. That is The Spiral, a weird, beautiful act of terror forced upon your ears and your frontal lobe. Though it is a languishing slow burn, and its putrid black ambiance tingles subtly and hits you harder over time, every single note, every single strange noise has clearly been chosen with absolute intention. This is noise music, reimagined for the doomsday era. Maybe they'll stop playing it soon. I can only dread what they will switch to.