Nagging Narratives: Stories of the Year

Some stories are like other worlds we visit for a little while. Some climb in our minds and manipulate our thoughts. “[O]ur brains are built to try to process everything we see as a story,” writes David Wong of Cracked.com, so it’s no wonder that some stories are so powerful. These are the ones that haunted my head this year.

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is easily the best movie of the year. As I wrote elsewhere, the hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of his previous movie, Primer, was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voice-over, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music.

Spring Breakers

Another collage-like experience, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is as beautiful as it is bewildering. Its heist scene might be the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen in years. Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob the Chicken Shack restaurant with a hammer and a squirt gun while Cotty (Rachel Korine) circles the building in the getaway car with the camera (and us) riding shotgun. Our limited vantage point gives the scene an added tension because though we are at a distance, it feels far from safe. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine and Chronicle, and the camera-as-character of Chronicle and Cloverfield, we receive a crippled information flow while experiencing total exposure. Their mantra: “Just pretend it’s a fucking video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

The book of the year is The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books). Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Also worthy of mention are Year Zero by Rob Reid (Del Rey/Ballantine), Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin), The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner), the nonfiction The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking) and Present Shock by Doug Rushkoff (Current), and the reissued, 20th anniversary edition of Vurt by Jeff Noon (Pan Macmillan).

Download, Spin, or Stream: Ten Records, 2013

Unlike last year, 2013 found me mostly listening to one strain of metal or another. With the embedded videos and off-site links on this page, I’ve tried to provide a way for you to hear a bit of each of these lovely records. There’s never been a better time to be a music fan.

Deafheaven: Sunbather on BandCampDeafheaven Sunbather (Deathwish, Inc.): I’m not sure what else can be said about Deafheaven that wasn’t said during 2013, but let there be no question that Sunbather is the record of the year. In conception and construction, no other record came close to its heights and depths. As I wrote in my review of the record, even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, Deafheaven is likely to work loose from any label applied to their sound. Neither the bands nor the fans come up with these categories anyway. If it moves us, we don’t care what you call it. In spite of their often caustic heaviness, there’s a pop sensibility in there that can’t help but shine through. Purists of all kinds had plenty of smack to talk, but Sunbather defies category and critique, rewards the repeated listen, and leaves behind the feeling that opposition only makes one stronger.

A Storm of Light: Nations to Flames on BandcampA Storm of Light Nations to Flames (Southern Lord): Late to these ears this year comes the latest from A Storm of Light. Nations to Flames brings together the best of the band’s abilities. The depth, breadth, weight, and ferocity of past outings are all here with a precision their peers often lack (See “All the Shining Lies” for one extreme example). If you still think of them as a side project, it’s high time to stop. Where so many others have stagnated in the past, A Storm of Light is burning new paths in the futures of heavy music.

Cult of Luna Vertikal (Density): On Vertikal, Cult of Luna plays songs about cities composed with the weight of concrete. Not unlike their past few releases (i.e., Eviga Riket, Eternal Kingdom, and Somewhere Along the Highway), this one is the product of many minds working overtime. Unlike the rural themes on those records, the band worked inside the city limits this time partially inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The companion EP Vertikal II includes Justin Broadrick‘s essential remix of “Vicarious Redemption,” which is ironically and atypically half the length of the original track. Here’s their video for “Passing Through”:

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Wire: Change Becomes UsWire Change Becomes Us (Pink Flag): Wire have been together for nearly 40 years, and they released one of their best records in 2013. Change Becomes Us is made up of reworkings of older, unrealized, and unreleased ideas from Wire’s classic, late-1970s era (cf. Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154). It’s also everything they do well in one place. It’s as punk as it is post-everything else, and proves why they’re one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century. If you don’t like “Re-Invent Your Second Wheel,” then we probably can’t be friends anymore.

Seidr : GinnungagapSeidr Ginnungagap (Bindrune Recordings): Though their name comes from Norse religion, Seidr is as low-key as they are Loki. A subtlety that’s often missing from heavy genres is the mark here. With members from some of my other favorite bands (e.g., Panopticon, Wheels Within Wheels, Kólga, etc.), Seidr is more than a supergroup: They are a collective of seers, mapping new territories in consciousness and the cosmos. Ginnungagap is only their second missive, but it sounds like the product of eons. “A Blink of the Cosmic Eye,” “The Pillars of Creation,” “Sweltering II: A Pale Blue Dot in the Vast Dark,” and the title track churn and smolder like dying stars. This is doom on the largest possible scale.

Mouth of the Architect: Dawning on BandCampMouth of the Architect Dawning (Translation Loss): Along with the new releases by Deafheaven and Cult of Luna above, the new Mouth of the Architect was one of my most anticipated records of 2013. Dawning is a sprawling six songs, the least of which is still just under seven minutes long. While they get lumped in with the usual suspects of post-metal (e.g., Neurosis, Isis, Pelican, etc.), Mouth of the Architect’s sound is subtly different in distinctive ways. It’s metal and majestic, heavy and heavenly, gruesome and graceful, and difficult to describe in detail, but you’d be hard pressed to confuse them with anyone else.

Watain The Wild Hunt (Season of Mist/Century Media): In the battle of the most brutal, it’s hard to beat Sweden’s Watain. They just keep pushing further into the darkness. After last year’s Opus Diaboli DVD, it was difficult to imagine how much darker or heavier they could get, but they managed to mangle expectations like so much dead meat. Here’s the absolutely perfect video for The Wild Hunt‘s “Outlaw”:

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My Bloody Valentine: mbv on YouTubeMy Bloody Valentine mbv (mbv): My Bloody Valentine finally followed up on their genre-defying and defining classic, Loveless (1992), with mbv. Like Wire’s Change Becomes Us, mbv is an amalgam of old and new recordings, some reworked from rough drafts done during their demise in the mid-1990s. With nine songs total, mbv is a trilogy of trilogies. It hangs together as a whole, but one can easily discern three movements. Three floes in the waves. After 21 years, this was possibly the first record lauded as much for not existing as it was upon its release. One thing’s still for damn sure: No one does this sound better than My Bloody Valentine.

Light Bearer: Silver TongueLight Bearer Silver Tongue (Halo of Flies): Light Bearer has been not-so-quietly building a body of work worthy of the most discriminate collectors. Silver Tongue is the second of a four-record concept called the Æsahættr Tetralogy. If feminism writ its largest could be an anti-religion, Light Bearer is writing it that large, chapter and verse.

Altar of Plagues Teethed Glory and Injury (Profound Lore): The last word from a band that deserved to be heard much more. Like their American peers Falls of Rauros, Panopticon, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Deafheaven, Ireland’s Altar of Plagues was pushing traditional Black Metal into new territories, and Teethed Glory and Injury is their best statement of purpose yet. R.I.P., A.o.P. Here’s the clip for “God Alone”:

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Others worthy of mention and attention: Portal Vexovoid (Profound Lore), Russian Circles Memorial (Sargent House), Nails Abandon All Life (Southern Lord), Lumbar The First and Last Days of Unwelcome (Southern Lord), Medicine To the Happy Few (Captured Tracks), Run the Jewels Run the Jewels (Fool’s Gold), Palms Palms (Ipecac), Vhol Vhol (Profound Lore), Wolves in the Throne Room BBC Session 2011 Anno Domini (Southern Lord), God is an Astronaut Origins (Rocket Girl Label), and Pelican Forever Becoming (Southern Lord).