Film Review: Midsommar (R)

There are few things more terrifying than Swedish hippies: well-mannered, meat pie munching, salt-herring slurping, commune dwelling devils that they are. Actually, that’s not true. There are few things less threatening than Swedish hippies. They’re total goobers. But that’s all part of director Ari Aster’s gambit in Midsommar. The audience knows this is a horror movie going in, they know the nature worshipping flower children are going to be bad guys, so Aster dares you to be afraid of them by making them incredibly likeable. And it works. Sure the hippies have a couple of creepy customs, but they’re super nice and willing to share their shroom tea, plus they have a bear. Aster fills the film with so much sunshine and good vibes that the steady stream of malice tends to trickle by unnoticed, like a psychedelic trip that’s gradually turning bad.

At its core, Midsommar is a breakup movie. Dani’s (Florence Pugh) and Christian’s (Jack Reynor) relationship is at its end, but gets extended beyond the expiration date due to a family tragedy that results in Dani being reluctantly invited on a summer trip to a Swedish commune. Dani is still haunted by the loss of her family and is scared to be alone. Christian, meanwhile, is too cowardly and lazy to break things off. Luckily, there’s a bunch of smiling Swedes in a surrealistic land of sunshine to help them through their issues.

Aster seems to be positioning himself as a playful trickster despite his bleak subject matter. Midsommar is filled with deceit and narrative sleights of hand. The very first image of the film lays out the entire plot, and yet pointing that out will spoil nothing. Aster brazenly reveals plot points throughout the film in ways that only multiple viewings and a passing knowledge of Elder Futhark runes will make apparent. But these sorts of winks and nods are for studious viewers and take nothing away from the story if unnoticed.

Midsommar makes a perfect companion piece to Aster’s debut, Hereditary. Hereditary was cold and dark, Midsommar is bright and sunny. Hereditary is about being burdened by familial baggage, Midsommar is about nihilistically casting off that burden. Both films trade in deep psychological torment, utilizing gore and grotesqueries as mere punctuation. Aster revisits the familiar themes of family trauma, mental illness, and smashed faces and redeploys a score of disconcerting strings that mimic and meld into all manner of screams and cries.

Also like Hereditary, this film is destined to be polarizing. Although engaging and briskly paced, Midsommar is still a two-and-a-half-hour slow burn drama. This is not the sort of horror that leans on indestructible slashers and whiz-bang chase sequences. So if you aren’t into artsy movies and/or suffer from a short attention span, you may want to skip this one.

Film Review: Hereditary (R)

Hereditary

Hereditary

“No nuts.”

Hereditary has garnered a lot of hype on its way to movie theaters, drawing comparisons to such scary stalwarts as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or Repulsion. And while those comparisons may be somewhat misleading in terms of what to expect, Hereditary is certainly worthy of occupying a space next to those films in the hallowed halls of horror. It’s sophisticated, dark, uncomfortable, challenging, and it may leave some rank and file jump scare seekers confounded, but certainly not empty-handed.

The level of craft on display would be impressive for a seasoned director, but this is Ari Aster’s first film. His nimble use of cinematography and editing is clever and jarring. From the opening scene, Aster uses some cinematic sleight of hand to seamlessly drop actors Alex Wolff and Gabriel Byrne into a miniature diorama. Static exterior shots abruptly jump from night to day, bolstering the sense of turmoil and disorientation that pervades the film. Colin Stetson’s score supplements that mood, creating an oozing pulse accentuated with industrial rattles and clicks and a scraping, screeching arrangement of atonal strings.

The story centers around artist Annie Graham (Toni Colette) whose name betrays her enigmatic nature. Colette delivers an amazing performance as Annie, coping with the recent loss of her abusive mother while struggling to be attentive to her aloof children and increasingly beleaguered spouse. The strain is coupled with anxiety over the veritable minefield of her gene pool, a family curse that includes everything from dissociative identity disorder, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia, to sleepwalking and food allergies.

Like A24’s other critical horror darling, The Witch, Hereditary is an unnervingly voyeuristic experience. Audiences are forced to witness some of the most private and tense moments of family life, like dinners and bedtime confessions filled with blame, bitterness, and regret. These moments are completely relatable but so personal in nature that it feels as if you shouldn’t be seeing them. The film derives some of its most horrific and squirm-inducing moments not from ghosts and gore but from the quiet oppression of parental hell.

That’s not to suggest that this is entirely a psychological drama. There are plenty of ghosts and demons stalking the shadows. As with other recent arthouse horror flicks like The Babadook and It Follows, the bogeymen are metaphorical but provide a very real and visceral onscreen threat. They also provide a fairly graphic supply of gore. Aster has no qualms about lingering on scenes from which other directors would have quickly cut away or omitted altogether. It’s this penchant for reveling in distress that leads to a gobsmacking first act break that’s on par with Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Hereditary’s intellectual plotting and occasional scenery chewing may alienate some moviegoers, but this is a definite must-see for cinephiles and hardcore horror fans. The film itself isn’t easily accessible for everyone, especially the surrealistic pandemonium of the film’s fever-pitched third act, but its fears are universal. There’s nothing quite as horrifying as becoming your parents.

CD Review: “Eat the Elephant” by A Perfect Circle

A Perfect Circle hasn’t had a new album for 14 years, despite promising one for the last ten. Between other projects and creative squabbles, it felt like the super group might be finished until a steady trickle of singles started showing up ahead of the release. What those singles hinted at was a very different kind of album.

It’s hard to write about Eat the Elephant without leaning on words like “matured” and “unexpected.’ A Perfect Circle has always been the gentler and more polished of vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s cavalcade of bands. And Eat the Elephant still fits that description, but it also distinguishes itself in tone. It’s slower and softer, subdued and experimental. It’s heavy on despair and light on anger.

It can’t be mere coincidence that the single “TalkTalk” shares its name with a British art rock band whose albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, bears much in common with A Perfect Circle’s new direction. Jazzy rhythms, cowed vocals and the use of silence as an instrument are all shared hallmarks between the two. The first three tracks of Eat the Elephant form a minimalist trilogy of quiet desperation that could almost live on a Talk Talk album.

“The Doomed” and “By and Down the River” are the most familiar tracks. “The Doomed” is the only song to bring out the fiery and raspy growls you might expect from Keenan, although its marching rhythm and foreboding fanfare still maintain a stillness that’s of a piece with the rest of Eat the Elephant. Elsewhere Keenan experiments with his vocal register, utilizing whispered falsettos that are simultaneously serene, intense and dripping with anxiety. These strained moments form the soul of the album. However, his electronic dabblings are easily the album’s low point. Luckily there are only two instances, “Hourglass” and “Get the Lead Out,” and both toward the end of the album, but the effect is jarring. This delicate, morose album is suddenly preempted by a trip hop dance party.

A Perfect Circle starts strong but loses its momentum at the end, as if the band got cold feet about going the moody/low key route and tried to overcompensate. But the final tally is still favorable, offering: two cringey tracks, two throw away tracks and eight really solid, surprising songs. Eat the Elephant comes frustratingly close to being a masterpiece, and while it falls short of that mark, there’s still plenty of material here to keep fans happy until Tool gets off its laurels.

CD Review: “The Sciences” by Sleep

The seminal stoner metal band Sleep has been dormant nearly 20 years while the side projects of guitarist Matt Pike (High on Fire) and vocalist/bassist Al Cisneros (Om) took the spotlight. There had been rumors and rumblings, the occasional tour and a new single, but year after year no album materialized. Some Sleep fans were skeptical, but it’s not out of character for the band to move at sloth’s pace. It’s also not out of character for the band to eschew a Record Store Day release in favor of a surprise “4/20” release date.

Thankfully, the wait wasn’t wasted. The Sciences is a behemoth of an album. It’s crushingly heavy and glacially slow but maintains the band’s meditative aesthetic. The riffs are hypnotic in their repetitive lumbering, each built on a strong foundation of psychedelic blues. New drummer Jason Roeder (Neurosis) adds a percussive stride that goads Pike and Cisneros into bolder experimentation on tracks like “The Botanist” and “Antarticans Thawed” and drives the aggressive riffs of “Giza Butler.”

The writing on the album is heavily focused on the music over the lyrics which, when present, are delivered with Cisneros’s mantra-like chanting. But like Jerusalem, there is a sort of story underlying the album. What lyrics there are expand on the band’s existing mythology, calling back references to the holy mountain, marijuanauts, and the sonic titan. There’s also a lot of Sabbath worship, A LOT of Sabbath worship. This is a narrative where Tony Iommi is the namesake of a religion, a planet and a layer of atmosphere (it’s safe to guess what that atmosphere consists of). Such slavish idolatry would be cringe worthy if the album was taking itself seriously, but this is an album about a marijuana-powered astronaut who may or may not actually just be a stoned-off-his-ass hippy living under an overpass.

The Sciences might be Sleep’s strongest effort. The music is nothing short of trance-inducing and the album itself is rife with codes and hidden references that might lead fans down a conspiracy laden rabbit hole but are never actually meaningful. It’s the sonic equivalent of getting high and that, perhaps, is the highest praise that can be offered a Sleep album.

CD Review: “Sterilize” by Unsane

After a five-year hiatus, New York noise trio Unsane returns to its roots on its eighth album. The dour disposition of the band’s previous release (Wreck) is long gone. Sterilize is raw and angry and relentless. It sounds like a band that’s young and hungry, not a band with 30 years and a healthy discography under its belt.

The album is lean. Every song feels essential and connected to the whole. Unsane oscillates between ranting ragers like “The Grind” and “Distance” and a seething southern-groove swagger on tracks like “Aberration” and “We’re Fucked.” The result is a staggered tempo that periodically pumps the brakes but never loses momentum. The tempo is so compelling that long stretches of instrumental noodling sneak past largely unnoticed.

Sterilize is a politically charged tempest of droning, squelching and clanking, a controlled chaos on the verge of breakdown. Chris Spencer’s vocals are panicked and angst-ridden, screeching desperate lines like “We’re going to run out of time.” But he finds opportune moments to trade off his soapbox punk vocals for melodic bits of chorus that offer a nice dynamism. There’s a definite craftsmanship guiding this chaos. Unsane knows when to let a riff sit and stew a few extra measures and when to launch head long into a feral cacophony.

This album is, without a doubt, a crowd pleaser. Fans are sure to find it refreshing to see Unsane stripping down and resetting. It’s harsh, but entirely accessible and an easy entry point for newcomers. Sterilize may not be the most innovative or the most experimental album in the band’s oeuvre, but it might just be the heaviest.

CD Review: “Cold Dark Place” by Mastodon

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The Cold Dark Place EP bears the Mastodon moniker and the members of Mastodon are performing the songs, but this is only technically a “Mastodon” album. Fans still high on Emperor of Sand should temper their expectations. That’s not to say this is a bad album, but it’s markedly distinct in tone and temperament from what one might expect from the band.

The EP was originally conceived as a Brent Hinds solo work. Hinds created the concept behind the album, wrote all of the songs, and collaborated with artist Richey Beckett on the album art. The tracks were recorded during the Once More ‘Round the Sun and Emperor of Sand sessions, but sound little like either album. This is Brent Hinds featuring Mastodon moreso than it’s Mastodon.

Cold Dark Place was inspired by a difficult break up and it strives for a slow, melancholy atmosphere, but Hinds is too much a southern boy to resist twangy solos and funky breakdowns. It makes for some odd and occasionally schizophrenic songs. The single, “Toe to Toes” combines an Allen Toussaint/”Southern Nights”-esque acoustic intro with a chorus largely lifted from the Ozzy Osbourne/Lita Ford duet, “Close My Eyes Forever.” Streaks and flashes of classic and southern rock abound throughout the EP. These four tracks are admittedly closer to Mastodon’s body of work than it is to other Hinds’ projects like West End Motel or Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, but there’s no doubt that Hinds is the dominate creative influence.

Hinds has created a strange and interesting bird with this EP. It’s well worth checking out, but it lives more as a footnote than a follow up. Cold Dark Place will definitely draw interest from diehard fans, but there’s little meat for casual Mastodon listeners.

CD Review: Arcadea – “Arcadea”

Arcadea is proof that Mastodon’s Brann Dailor is a huge nerd. Fresh on the heels of Mastodon’s seventh studio album, Dailor’s side project debut, the eponymous album Arcadea, reveals an unyielding love of proggy, synth-laden rock operas and a fascination with science on both an astronomical and microscopic scale. HUGE. NERD. But this nerdy love of detail and technical attention makes for a pretty trippy tour of the universe.

It’s clear that Dailor’s proclivities make him at least one of the leading forces driving Mastodon away from metal and toward psychedelic hard rock. Arcadea is the stuff of black light posters and planetariums and half-smoked joints. Teamed with Raheem Amlani (of the fantastic black metal outfit, Withered) and Core Atoms (Zaruda), Dailor’s songs are written from the point of view of electromagnetic waves, black holes, and constellations. Nearly every song obsesses with juxtaposing microcosms and macrocosms and casting the clockwork tedium of celestial activity into epic stories. A supernova becomes a march to war across the galaxy for an “army of electrons.” Lyrics like “I’ll split the oceans, I’ll make the mountains melt, Molecular motion rising, Shockwave of thunder felt,” relates the creation of a star as the birth of a primal cosmic god.

Both in form and substance, Arcadea is a perfect throw back to 70s prog rock, but retains a definite Mastodon-esque sound. Despite the synth-heavy melodies and Neil deGrasse Tyson level lyrics, the band maintains a rock savvy aesthetic that never lets the concept overpower the song writing. The resulting album has a creepy sci-fi groove that’s catchy and compelling. It’ll make you want to dust off your lava lamp. Arcadea is a promising project and hopefully won’t be a one-off band that disappears into the cold reaches of space. Whether you’re a Mastodon fan or maybe just a huge nerd, Arcadea offers a lot to love.

For more information on Arcadea, visit their Facebook page and order the album at the Relapse Records website. Want to give it a listen first? Relapse Records is offering a stream of the album, which you can find below.

Mastodon’s Brent Hinds Proposes at Iron City

Although based out of Atlanta, Mastodon’s concert at Birmingham’s Iron City was a homecoming celebration. Vocalist/lead guitarist Brent Hinds is a Birmingham native and his family was in attendance. His mother spent the show hopping up and down, leaning against the balcony and his 90-year-old grandmother sat in a chair on stage and danced with members of both Mastodon and Eagles of Death Metal during the show.

Fans turned out in full force and filled with enthusiasm. The audience packed in tight such that making your way from one side of the venue to the other was a harrowing journey. The crowd met nearly every song with dancing, fist pumping, sing-alongs and the occasional mosh pit.

“You guys are really incredible,” said EODM front man Jesse Hughes. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a reception like this.” Both EODM and Mastodon echoed this sentiment several times during the evening. Of course it’s the sort of canned response that most bands spout at every show, but it felt sincere given the high capacity, high-energy audience.

After Russian Circles warmed up the crowd with a quick opening set, Hinds joined EODM on stage for its first few songs after introducing his grandmother. The band’s feel-good dance rock only contributed to the festive vibes of the night. Hughes strutted around the stage like a redneck Mick Jagger and rocked out with a cover of Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” amid the regular set list. Josh Homme rarely tours with the band and this night, unfortunately, was no different. But the touring band put on an excellent performance and Homme’s absence was barely noticed.

Mastodon’s stage show was no-frills/all business, which is fairly typical for the band. Four vertical monitors were positioned around the back of the stage and displayed dissected, colorful, psychedelic images as the band played. With the exception of the arrays of colored spotlights, the stage lights were kept low to emphasize the colored, whirling patterns. The only other form of theatrics was Hinds’ dancing granny.

Mastodon opened with “Sultan’s Curse” and proceeded to play nearly every track off the new album, Emperor of Sand, during the course of the night. The set was still filled with plenty of fan favorites like “Oblivion” and “Blood and Thunder,” but the new songs received as many whoops and cheers as the established hits. Crowd surfers were a frequent occurrence during Mastodon’s performance but mosh pits seldom appeared, spontaneously breaking out during heavier numbers like “Blood and Thunder” only to quickly peter out by the next song.

“You want an encore?” Hinds asked at the end of the night. The audience was still in high spirits and called for more. “Well how about this for an encore?” Hinds stepped backstage, reached for his girlfriend, Raisa Moreno, and led her onstage. He knelt and proposed to her. It was a bigger encore than the audience could’ve anticipated, a one-of-a-kind show. Hinds’ mom shouted from the balcony while her son and new daughter-in-law embraced. The band didn’t try to follow that with another song.

The concert was an intimate experience shared with fans. It was the sort of show that fans talk about for years. “Were you there the night Mastodon’s guitarist had his grandma dance onstage and then proposed to his girlfriend?” It was a treat to hear the band play the new songs and it’s definitely worth catching this bill on tour, but the remaining tour dates won’t compare to seeing the Iron City show.

CD Review: “Emperor of Sand” by Mastodon

Emperor of Sand is a chrysalis of an album. Like Crack the Skye before it, it’s a harbinger of a new sound. Not that Mastodon ever really stops tinkering with its sound, but the band’s seventh album gives every indication that it’s ready to shed the last of its metal cocoon and fully emerge as a psychedelic, hard rock band. But there’s still plenty of metal to shed.

Like many Mastodon albums, Emperor of Sand is a concept album. It tells the story of a man condemned by a sultan to die in the desert, which is an allegory for facing cancer and the emotions one deals with when learning he or she is going to die. The desert imagery coupled with the inevitability of death is a little reminiscent of “Ozymandias” if the old king knew what was coming.

Sonically, the album follows the trend toward hard rock established on The Hunter and Once More ‘Round the Sun, but some of the softer dalliances are jarring. The single “Show Yourself” has an unusually radio friendly pop aesthetic that may put off longtime fans. It lacks the proggy layers of a typical Mastodon song and the absence of hard edges makes the track feel flat at first blush. But to its credit, “Show Yourself” is an incurable ear worm. Lines like, “You’re not safe as far as I can tell, and I can tell,” burrow deep. It’s the song you’ll catch yourself humming days later. However, “Show Yourself” is something of an outlier. There are moments, flashes, in songs like “Precious Stones” and “Steambreather” that reflect a similar commercial gleam, but as a whole, there’s not another song like “Show Yourself” on Emperor of Sand.

Mirroring the journey from denial to acceptance, the songs get heavier and angrier making for some of the heaviest songs Mastodon has produced in the last eight years. Brann Dailor’s clean vocals dominate the early half of the album, but increasingly give way to Troy Sanders’ growls. Sanders’ harsher vocal are further anchored by guest appearances from Neurosis’ Scott Kelly and Brutal Truth’s Kevin Sharp on the final tracks.

Emperor of Sand hits a sweet spot mid-way through with a trilogy of songs (“Word to the Wise,” “Ancient Kingdom” and “Clandestiny”) that hit an epic pitch, granting a sense of grandeur in the face of a feeble and fearful passing. It’s a sad album and an angry one. One that refuses to go peacefully and fights it out to the end. Something familiar is fading out on this album, but something new and (hopefully) interesting will follow.

Mastodon is currently on tour and you can catch them with Russian Circles and Eagles of Death Metal in Birmingham, AL on April 28th at Iron City. You can find tickets here and a copy of the new album comes with every pair of tickets purchased online.

 

MC Chris Celebrates Ten Years on the Road at Birmingham’s Syndicate Lounge

The Ten Years of Touring Tour feels more like a house party than a concert. It’s an impression that may be partly due to the venue. The Syndicate Lounge in Birmingham, AL was intimate and casual and had every appearance of a buddy’s game room or basement bedroom. There’s a small bar in the back, a room with a couple of sofas off to one side and a smaller room around the corner where a merch table sat instead of a ping-pong table. Three laptops were set up on a small table in the middle of the stage, like someone tried to put together an ad hoc LAN party.

But the house party vibe didn’t lie entirely on the shoulders of The Syndicate Lounge. MC Chris and both of his opening acts are among some of the most affable and approachable artists you’ll ever meet. They engaged the crowd and gladly bullshit with fans after the show about classic NES games and iconic wrestling moves while signing autographs and posing for selfies. They’re all proud nerds.

Former schoolteacher and Philadelphia native Mega Ran was a perfect primer for the night. Funny and friendly, it’s impossible not to smile back at the man when he grins. Mega Ran served as an unofficial master of ceremonies for the show. He expertly warmed up the crowd, directing dance moves and bringing fans onstage to participate. His set was peppered with anecdotes about his teaching experiences and his disappointment in his kids’ love of Drake. For his big freestyle finale, he had the audience empty their pockets in search of props and spontaneous subject matter.

One of the perks of seeing a bill with three MCs means not having to suffer through a full breakdown, set up and sound check between every act. A jiggling of a couple of cords and a quick mic check was all that was required before MC Lars was ready to go on. Lars’ onstage persona was jubilant and childlike. He bounced from one side of the stage to the other high fiving fans while espousing his love of Weird Al Yankovic and Edgar Allen Poe. Mega Ran returned to the stage for a few tag team raps to close out the set, including a full rap rendition of Poe’s “The Raven” complete with a raven puppet.

It’d be reasonable to suspect that Mega Ran and MC Lars performed an off stage Dragon Ball-style fusion dance to form the headlining act. MC Chris is a veteran artist who embodies both the tangent-prone, audience taskmaster of Mega Ran and the loveable goofball of MC Lars. Chris was quick to work the crowd, making them laugh, dance and sing on command. Despite touring on a new album, his set was very fan-conscious. He leaned on older, pre-Foreverrr material, only slipping in a couple of newer tracks. It was a disappointing and perhaps an overly cautious decision given the popularity of his previous album and that his newest albums deal in Halloween-appropriate fare. Considering that he hosted a mid-concert costume contest, one might’ve expected more Ghostbusters and Freddy Kruger-centric tracks to work their way into the set. But long time fans were guaranteed to hear all their favorite songs. The set list included everything from “Pizza Butt” to “Fett’s Vette.” Chris even opened with “I Want Candy,” a deep-cut from his Adult Swim alter ego MC Pee Pants.

As anyone familiar with an MC Chris show might expect, his set was filled with nerdy rants about Star Wars and Jaws interspersed between raps. Underneath the “funny voice” and the nerd rage façade, Chris is a respectable comedian with a sharp sense of timing and the ability to flip a flub into a laugh. One bit involved continuously interrupting his own song to return to a previous rant about the Millennium Falcon as if he were a politically enraged Facebook poster, culminating with the angry non sequitur, “Jared Leto was a bad Joker!”

Ten years is a long time to spend on the road, but MC Chris and his compatriots have only improved with age. It’s well worth your time to release your inner geek for an evening. There are few shows that are as fun as an MC Chris show and you should see him live at least once, no matter what Alex Trebek says.