Friday, February 20, 2015

The Pantheon

1. Daft Punk - Homework (1997)

In 2001 Daft Punk released Discovery, an album of 70s-influenced electro pop that proved to be one of the decade’s most enduring achievements. It placed at #3 on Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums of the 2000s list, ahead of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and The Blueprint, beaten for the top spot only by Funeral and Kid A. It was a good album that received fair-to-decent reviews on release, but which grew significantly in stature as the decade continued. (In 2004 when Pitchfork compiled their Best of 2000-04 list, the album was featured at number twelve, to give an example of the album’s ascent in critical hindsight.)

Looking back, it’s easy to see why the album succeeded so well over the long term. Even if, at first, the album appeared to be little more than a pastiche of the most guilelessly appealing sounds of the 1970s, wrapped up in a slightly cheesy dance-pop bow, it proved startlingly prescient. In a few years half of everything on the radio was trying to sound like Discovery. The duo’s sincere pastiche surpassed its (seemingly) disposable origins and became one of the most influential sounds of the decade: maybe not the specific way that album managed to replicate Supertramp’s electric piano or the bassline on Steely Dan’s “Black Cow,” but the general mood of reverential nostalgia that gripped so many of the previous decade’s most significant artists.

Discovery was and is a great album that deserves its reputation. The problem was, when the album dropped in March of 2001, it wasn’t what I wanted. The first single, ”One More Time,” baffled me. What had happened to Daft Punk? To put it bluntly (which was exactly my reaction at the time), where were the beats?

It felt like a betrayal. It appeared to be a dodgy retro pop move from a group that had previously seen fit to grace the world with one of – if not the – best house LPs ever recorded – 1997’s Homework. In hindsight (once again) it’s easy to see that this was an unfair comparison. Discovery wasn’t a straight-ahead house album, and it was never intended to be. It was something else, and it became clear as the decade wore on that they had no interest in going back to the sound that initially made them famous. And, to be fair, the beats were there on Discovery, they just sounded a bit different. I eventually outgrew my initial dismay.

But 2001 was four years after 1997, and so four years after the high-water mark of the so-called “electronica” push that American record companies conjured up in a desperate effort to replicate the success of grunge just five years previous. (Of course, they needn’t have worried: teen pop was waiting around the corner, right about to come back in a big way, and just in time for the death of the CD era.) Homework wasn’t an obscure gem. It was a major release on Virgin records, spawning a handful of popular singles (“Around the World, “Da Funk”), and memorable videos that made it into frequent rotation on MTV. (For those who remember the glory days of M2, the intro to “Revolution 909” was used in network promos for a couple years.) But 2001 was a different world from 1997: “electronica” was a dead letter, conventional wisdom once again affirmed that dance music would never take flight as a national concern, and the kids who had bought Homework had thrown the CD into the back of their car before moving on to Significant Other. When Discovery premiered, it gained traction with hipsters and critics who still liked electro pop but had long since had their fill of “dance music,” and its reputation grew in the interim, while Homework languished.

2005’s Human After All met a muted response. That was a shame, as I quite like the album: it’s off-the-cuff sound, recorded fast and cheap over just a couple months, brought to mind Homework’s “Rollin’ and Scratchin’” and “Rock’n Roll.” But again, even if the album initially underperformed, it grew in hindsight: in just a few years that albums harsh and staticky sound would be everywhere. When Kanye West wanted Daft Punk for Yeezus, he didn’t want the understated funk of “Get Lucky”he wanted the electronic buzzsaw from Human After All. (And hey, I called it back in 2007.)

But for me, and I’m sure a few others, Homework will never be surpassed.

I remember, when “Get Lucky” first dropped, I expressed my disappointment – a recurring theme, here – that the song wasn’t house. The response I got was, in essence, why would Daft Punk want to waste their time making cookie-cutter EDM? (I, uh, threw a tantrum here, but again, I eventually came around to Random Access Memories, even if their failure to continue the cover theme of their first three releases still stings.) And the answer is simple: Daft Punk never made cookie-cutter “EDM,” they made house music.

It’s funny, considering I never liked dancing, how much I love house music. House music means a lot to me. I love the history, I love the sound, I love the mythology. I realized recently that Homework wasn’t actually that much different in design and execution from their follow-ups. It was, like Discovery and Random Access Memories before it, also a kind of pastiche. They came up in the world of French house, and French house always had a kind of candy-colored sheen that American and British dance music never managed. It probably has something to do with the fact that disco never died on the continent. In the late seventies and early eighties, dance music in the United State went underground, rejected by middle America but embraced by the outsiders, racial and sexual minorities living in urban areas who built a musical culture based on models of tolerance, cooperation, and optimistic futurism. (The long version is a bit more complicated than that, but this is the ideal.) Listening to Homework now, it’s a grab bag of different styles and modes from the first twenty years of house history, from old school New York garage (“Revolution 909”) to UK acid house (“Rock’n Roll”) to cheeseball Eurodisco (the deathless “Around the World”), slathered with high-gloss production that accentuated every detail. (The only thing missing was a full-on diva track, but they checked that off the list on Discovery). As the track “Teachers" suggests, the album was kind of, well, a dissertation on dance music history. House music – being a singles genre – doesn’t have the best track record with full-length LPs, but Homework managed 74 continuous minutes without a dud in the bunch. It was a window on a world that was already beginning to fade.

That world is dead now. Like CBGB’s, the Paradise Garage is long since gone. Larry Levan has passed, so too Frankie Knuckles. Big festival EDM has become the breakthrough dance music that “electronica” and house could never be, with all the attendant baggage. So it goes. You can’t really get mad at the kid in the Green Day T-shirt for not knowing who the Vibrators were, anymore than you can get mad at the dudebros moshing to Skrillex for not being able to pick Carl Craig out of a line-up. The history is there for those who want to look.

Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter returned from the wilderness in 2001 dressed as robots, hiding their faces behind two now-iconic metal masks. As much of a gimmick as it may seem, it’s well in keeping with dance music’s tradition of relative facelessness. Deadmau5 wears a helmet, too, and for much the same reason. The Chemical Brothers are just two normal looking blokes you could imagine working in a bank or an IT department. It doesn’t matter who you are when you play house music. You could be anybody or anything. What matters is the sound, the feeling, the history, and the future.

And that is why the album ends with “Alive.” It’s not just any stereotypical “end of album” epic. It’s remarkably simple, really, maybe the simplest song on the record: just one big beat, with two different synth riffs coming in and out of the mix. And yet, the song manages to take these ingredients and turn it into the most massive sound imaginable. When the two riffs synch up, it sounds like the pressure drop from an explosion, the labored breath of an ancient space god arising from the depths of the ocean. It’s bigger than anything else, bigger than you and bigger than me.

And that is house music.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Neat Stuff!

Hey everybody, it's a big day for stuff! In case you were wondering if I had an opinion about DC's new, well, whatever the hell they call relaunching half their line, I do, and it's here. They cut a bit of stuff from the essay on the subject of DC's addiction to T&A books - which I can understand, but it still needs to be said that it's a good thing they're cutting some of their gory T&A books, even though some of them do sell.

Also, the new Party Jam is up here at Mixcloud! Mazel tov!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight

"Gothic" by Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson

If "Shaman" was an ambitious misfire, "Gothic" is the story where Legends of the Dark Knight finally came into its own and fully embraced its remit. It's important to remember that, back in 1989, there really wasn't much in the way of a track record for Batman stories like this. The three models for "mature readers" (I'm putting that phrase in necessary scare-quotes) Batman stories that LotDK was initially pulling from were 1988's The Killing Joke, 1987's "Year One," and 1986's The Dark Knight Returns. The same year that LotDK premiered also saw the release of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum graphic novel. The idea of a Batman story designed to be read by an audience that didn't include young children was still new. We take it for granted now that many - if not, unfortunately, most - Batman stories currently published just aren't appropriate for kids. But back then the idea was, pardon the pun, novel, and it was this revelation that served as the inspiration for hundreds of subsequent "Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore" headlines. It was a strange idea for many, many people to wrap their heads around.

Even though "Shaman" lacked the Comics Code seal, there was nothing in the story that would have proved problematic for the Authority. Denny O'Neil was an old hand, and even though the story was concerned with "heavy" themes such as myth, cultural theft, and ritual murder, it was still essentially a Batman story of the kind that could have been told at any point in the previous twenty years, just told with a darker color palette. Not so "Gothic." This was a story that couldn't have been told with pre-1986 Batman. The violence, the intensity, the presence of explicit violence and (not so explicit but still upsetting) sex was new. It didn't go as far as Arkham Asylum, but it also wasn't anywhere near as abstruse. Although many of Morrison's early habits were well in place, the story was more brutal and direct than its more highbrow cousin. This was a murder mystery that touched on child murder, sexual abuse, satanism, and rape in the course of its unraveling.

Morrison has written many Batman stories in his career, and much of his later work is prefigured in "Gothic." For one, Morrison wasn't afraid to cross the line separating Batman's mundane crime-ridden Gotham from the kind of supernatural horror elements exemplified by the story's villain, Mr. Whisper. The idea that Gotham is somehow a genuinely haunted, specially cursed placed was one that would become more and more central to the mythos. Now it's often a given that Gotham city, rather than merely an exaggerated vision of 1970s urban hell New York, contains some kind of Mephistophelian affinity to the literal hell. (For modern examples, see Snyder and Capullo's Batman, as well as Batman Eternal.) Morrison also introduces the idea that Thomas Wayne was a deeper and more significant figure in Gotham history than previous writers had intimated. And finally, even though "Gothic" is close to being a straight horror story, Morrison also has fun mixing and matching a few motifs from previous Batman eras: in the midst of a heavy supernatural mystery, he finds time to strap our hero into a Rube Goldberg deathtrap straight out of the 1960s TV show. The idea that all of Batman's diverse and thematically inconsistent histories coexisted as parts of the character's development was one that Morrison would return to later.

The story begins with the a series of murders of Gotham's most powerful criminals. In desperation these criminals turn for protection to Batman, who scoffs at their attempts at negotiation before setting out to hunt the killer himself. (Oh, yeah, I guess these are spoilers for a 25-year-old Batman story?) Morrison performs an extremely clever maneuver here: in the early pages he leads the reader to believe the story will focus on the crime lords being hunted and killed by some mysterious force. But it turns out that the crime lords' purpose in the story is mainly to give Batman (and the audience) a red herring. The actual plot has little to do with the mob bosses. Mr. Whisper is killing them, but more out of boredom while sitting around Gotham waiting for his real plan to kick in.

The "real" plan actually involves a 300-year old serial killer who made a deal with the devil, and his plan to murder every man, woman, and child in Gotham as a means of escaping this obligation. There are allusions peppered throughout, from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus to de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, the latter of which he would return to in the second arc of The Invisibles. Meanwhile, the catalyst for Mr. Whisper's crusade of vengeance against Gotham's underworld is revealed to be, basically, the plot of Fritz Lang's M. Morrison here is still operating very much in the mode of fellow "British Invasion" writers Moore and Gaiman - processing literary and artistic influences in a very literal-minded way, plucking plots and themes directly from older works to create a thick metatextual stew. Morrison would, of course, largely outgrow this tendency over the course of the next decade, with the aforementioned Invisibles acting as his own version of The Sandman, a means for a young creator of digesting and reflecting a large mass of influences through the lens of familiar genre fiction signifiers. Like Moore and Gaiman, Morrison would become a far more subtle writer with age, but his earlier work retains a pleasing density sometimes missing from his later, more streamlined efforts.

If anything could be said to account for the story's relatively low profile compared both to other early attempts at "mature readers" Batman stories and in the context of Morrison's well-plumbed oeuvre, it may be Klaus Janson's art. Janson is, it must be said, an acquired taste, a master of mood and setting (he can draw castles and gothic cathedrals for days), whose figurework often suffers from a merely expressionistic relationship to reality. I happen to like Janson's art, the occasional strange potato-head notwithstanding. Something Janson gets which many more superficially polished artists do not is how to make a fight seem painful and punishing without also appearing pretty: the brawl between Batman and Mr. Whisper that takes up much of the story's last issue is brutal, with broken bones and bloody knuckles, and Batman facing down an opponent who may be nowhere his match in terms of martial skill, but simply can't be stopped, not even by a speeding subway train. It's exhausting to read, and Janson's Batman - far from the invincible paragon he is often portrayed as - feels the rattle of every blow.

"Gothic" isn't a perfect story, despite its many virtues. Some of its defects are still present in Morrison's work down to this day: for instance, pacing can seem a jumble. Each episodic set-piece is exquisitely measured by Janson, but the episodes themselves can seem abrupt. The series' mandate of tying each adventure so closely to the "Year One" era results in a questionable continuity implant that sees Thomas Wayne on the verge of solving a series of brutal child murders on the very day he's shot and killed (while also raising the question of whether or not the Waynes' murder was as random as believed, which carries regrettable implications for the character's origin). The same over-enthusiasm that made Arkham Asylum interesting and frustrating in equal measure can be discerned here, even if Janson's art provides a much firmer grounding for the writer's earnest digressions. Arkham Asylum is ultimately redeemed not despite but because of its excesses - it's a ludicrously overstuffed, ungodly pretentious monstrosity that works because of its deep commitment to every overwrought and underbaked bit of juvenile psychodrama. There isn't nearly as much at stake with "Gothic", and Morrison is far more restrained. Despite the surprisingly cosmic scope, at its root it's still a murder mystery with a bit of supernatural horror thrown in for good measure. If the story seems to overreach at times, its portrait of Batman is perfectly balanced, a human, fallible hero who nonetheless manages to triumph in the face of unearthly evil due to his demoniacal singularity of purpose.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight

"Shaman" by Dennis O'Neil, Ed Hannigan, and John Beatty

For all the conventional wisdom that superhero movies don't sell comic books (an iffy proposition, if not altogether incorrect), the perpetual exception that proves this dubious rule for armchair market watchers remains Batman and Batman, ca. 1989. Batman the movie ended up selling a lot of comics, and also a lot of everything else. As strange as it may seem now in the year 2015, there were only two regular Batman titles on the stands at this time: Batman and Detective Comics, both continuing their numbering from the Golden Age. So the premiere of a new ongoing solo Batman book was actually an event worth noting, even if the release had been catalyzed by a juggernaut motion picture.

Legends of the Dark Knight was, at the time, an altogether different kind of monthly comic. Instead of launching with a stable creative team, the book was conceived from the get-go as an anthology, with rotating creators switching arcs. Additionally, the book was not set in the present of the DCU, but in the past - specifically, the "Year One" period popularized by Frank Miller in his work (with David Mazzucchelli) of the same name, which had also served as one of the stylistic influences for Tim Burton's movie. So while LotDK was designed to fit into the then-modern post-Crisis continuity, filling in the gaps of Batman's early years, it was still, like "Year One," at a distance from contemporary goings-on. What this meant in practice - although this mandate loosened as time wore on and the "Year One" period became increasingly crowded - was: no yellow Bat-symbol, no other superheroes, and especially no Robin. Oh yeah, the Comics Code was conspicuously missing as well - although, at least for this first arc, the lack was often academic.

The series' first story had all the ingredients of a hit: longtime Batman writer / editor Denny O'Neil paired with experienced draftsman Ed Hannigan for a paired-down, atmospheric mystery starring a young and still inexperienced Dark Knight, in a brand-new mature(er)-readers Batman book. Unfortunately, the end result ended up being, well, not so auspicious.

The story begins in Alaska, just south of the Arctic circle. Young Bruce Wayne is still in his training period, this time following a famous bounty hunter as he tracks a desperate criminal across a windswept snowy mountain pass. (You have to wonder, just how many experts did Bruce shadow in his apprentice years? Did he train under a master sommelier somewhere? The world's greatest cabinet maker?) Anyway, things go awry and everyone dies except for Bruce, who is also about to die before he just happens to be saved by an Inuit medicine man and his comely daughter, who nurse him back to life with the aid of a magical story about bats. After he gets better, Bruce returns to Gotham and decides he's ready to begin his crimefighting career.

Parts of the story take place literally between panels of Miller's "Year One," and not surprisingly "Shaman" manages to step on the toes of that other, far superior story. For instance, the bat story / legend Bruce hears while recovering in Alaska precedes the fateful moment where the bat flies into his study. Think about that for a second: instead of the iconic image of the bat crashing through the window and Bruce deciding just then to become Batman, in O'Neil's version the bat flies through the window and Bruce thinks, "oh, a bat, that reminds me of the bat story my Alaskan friends told me. I think maybe I should follow that inclination and dress up in a bat mask, just like the helpful shaman, and this other bat here which was more incidental than anything else."

There's some other stuff here to pad out the five issue arc. A death cult based on a syncretic combination of Alaskan and Santa Priscan myth pops up in Gotham to take advantage of the fact that Gotham gang members really are stupid enough to believe ritually killing people will grant them mystic protection. It turns out that Bruce Wayne really did those Inuits a solid by telling everybody about how awesome they were because within a year the outside world had descended on the small community, built an airport and tourist industry from scratch, and plunged the previously-seen natives into poverty and drunken dissolution - all within a year if you follow the story's time frame. Bruce feels guilty about this but doesn't really dwell on it. Would you believe the killer turns out to be the guy from the beginning of the story who you thought died by falling off a mountain, but it turns out survived and just so happened to figure out Bruce Wayne was Batman? And of course, when Bruce tries to return the stolen bat-mask to its original owners, they let him have it because he's now . . . The REAL Bat-Shaman.

I could go on but there's no point. O'Neil was obviously stretching here, but the best intentions in the world do little to elevate the story beyond regrettable. If this story had come out thirty years earlier, the cover caption would have invited readers to wonder "What Is The Mystery Behind Batman's First Mask?" That's essentially what this is: another pseudo-origin story superimposed over another, better origin story, adding in details that don't make a lot of sense for no reason other than it seems to be the series mandate.