Sorcerer

by Matt J. Popham

A box-office flop, thoroughly reviled as a sacrilegious and superfluous remake, as well as a bloated, bombastic object lesson in auteurist excess at the time of its 1977 release, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer has enjoyed a renaissance in the last decade or so, as scores of critics and cinephiles (myself, included) have called for the film to be given a second look and a proper DVD/Blu-Ray release, which it finally received last year. An adrenalized, full-throttle reimagining of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, Sorcerer is less an existential thriller than an existential nightmare – a riveting, amplified odyssey of fate vs. will, in which Friedkin’s superlative talents for dramatic intensity and visceral impact are given their fullest and, perhaps, best expression. Gritty, grueling, and relentlessly grim, its financial failure and critical crash-and-burn signaled a sea change in cinematic sensibilities. (It must have felt assaultive to audiences who were lining up around the block for repeat viewings of Star Wars…) But after decades collecting dust in near-obscurity, it has finally emerged as one of the last great masterpieces of the New Hollywood era.

In a series of globetrotting prologues, the film takes us from Veracruz, to Jerusalem, to Paris, to New Jersey, introducing us to four career criminals – an assassin (Francisco Rabal), a terrorist (Amidou), a corrupt banker (Bruno Cremer), and an armed robber (Roy Scheider) – right at the moment their luck runs out and fate closes in. After fleeing their respective countries, they find themselves damned to the green hell of Porvenir, a remote, poverty-stricken village in the jungles of Latin America, where the only hope of living is the hope of leaving. The closest thing to civilization is an American oil well, 200 kilometers away, leeching off the land in more ways than one. After the well suffers a catastrophic explosion, our four fugitives are offered a deal with the devil: in exchange for driving two truckloads of dangerously unstable dynamite through the jungle to the disaster site, they will be given a way out: new identities, cash, and passports. That is, if they survive.

Though initially criticized for it, Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green deliberately take their time establishing Sorcerer’s scene and setting, its characters and their circumstances. Before they even set out into the jungle, we acquire a thorough understanding of each man’s individual nature, we experience their shared desperation and desolation, and we learn what each man is capable of, for better and for worse. As they prepare for their journey, we watch them develop an uneasy dynamic, regarding each other with disdain, suspicion, and self-interest, a potentially explosive interpersonal friction added to their already tense and volatile situation. All four actors deliver thorough, internalized, often wordless performances, throughout, fully embodying the plight of hardened men who have found themselves at the end of the world, possibly the end of their lives. They are lived in to the point of being worn out, their battered hopes, fears, regrets, and desires often powerfully communicated through the smallest gestures, flickering across their weathered faces.

White-knuckling their steering wheels, as they push their way through the treacherous terrain, they contend with a series of insurmountable obstacles and lethal perils, confronting each with uncommon resourcefulness and fierce resolve. The trucks move slowly, stop frequently, and there is precious little in the way of dialogue, yet every moment is gripping, harrowing, heart-stopping. Friedkin is a master of rooting his films in a down and dirty realism that can violently erupt into events of almost supernatural extremity. Whether it’s the frenetic, obsession fueled car chase in The French Connection, the ravaging demonic entity in The Exorcist, or the pyromaniacal nihilism that spreads across Los Angeles in To Live and Die in L.A., there is always the suggestion that just beneath the grey and grungy surface of reality is an incomprehensible, unstoppable destructive force waiting to rip through and consume us. In Sorcerer, all of nature becomes perversely malevolent, rising up to thwart these men on their mission: torrential, blinding rains beat down, turning the meagre roads into oozing, squelching flumes of mud; rickety bridges sway and strain over swelling, crashing rivers; trees become twisted, monstrous claws reaching out to grab or obstruct. Friedkin jarringly juxtaposes these hysterical, convulsive bursts with their silent, sober aftermaths, following moments of shadowed darkness with blinding light – a technique he perfected with The Exorcist – keeping us in a perpetual state of breathless uncertainty, as the film descends into an increasingly hallucinogenic unreality. Aside from vividly reflecting our characters’ own besieged mental state – their sanity pushed to the brink as they forge ahead on their trek – these formal strategies also cut right to the infernal heart of the film.

And maybe that’s why the “Me Generation” couldn’t go along for the ride…

Sorcerer is not a redemption story. Our four fugitives’ punishing jungle crossing is not a penance from which they will emerge with their sins forgiven, their souls cleansed. These men have no interest in redemption. They are utterly impenitent. Seen in a spiritual light, their mission is nothing more than a devil’s bargain; and their journey towards the blazing inferno their volatile cargo is meant to extinguish, a furious attempt to climb out of hell. Taken from an ecological angle, they are pawns of corporate oil, hired guns attempting to profit in the war against the planet. (Is it any wonder, then, that the planet fights back so aggressively?) But from a more purely existential perspective, they are simply desperate men who have used up their lives, and the lives of others around them, for personal gain, and are now desperate to escape the resultant ruin. The mission dangles before them their only slight glimmer of hope: a new life, which they will likely not live any better than the first. They push forward relentlessly, almost admirably, defying the merciless forces of fate, but they still exist solely for themselves. (“We’re sitting on double shares!” Scheider gleefully exclaims when it appears two of the others have been killed.) Their mission will not make them better. It will not even make them stronger. It will simply bring them face to face with the hopelessness and futility of their efforts. In a macabre twist on Sisyphus, even if – against all odds – they succeed, we must imagine them failures.

Le Butcherettes – A Raw Youth

by Matt J. Popham

Purged of the demons she so fiercely exorcised on 2014’s savage and sensational Cry is for the Flies, Le Butcherettes’ founder and frontwoman Teri Gender Bender (nee Suarez) is back with A Raw Youth, a stunning follow-up album that is every bit its predecessor’s equal in power and intensity, yet its complete antithesis in topic and tone. Energetic, invigorating, and accessible where Cry is for the Flies was dark, despairing, and dissonant (even the album’s more tuneful tracks sounded dangerously deranged), A Raw Youth positively blazes with passion and vitality, fearlessly flaunting a host of irresistible rock ‘n’ roll riffs, catchy pop hooks, and singalong melodies. Not that anyone should interpret that as, in any way, signaling a sell-out. There’s still plenty of challenging material here, both in style and substance, and Suarez is as fiery, as uncompromising, and as idiosyncratic as ever. What’s remarkable is how seamlessly – and how satisfyingly – she is able to incorporate these elements into Le Butcherettes’ signature garage punk sound.

The album kicks down the door with “Shave the Pride,” a rousing, literally in-your-face, rocker, in which a boyfriend’s untamed beard evolves into a metaphor for dominance assertion, then spreads out, somewhat surprisingly, into two unabashedly 80’s-inspired pop-rock numbers: the heartfelt and full-throated ode to self-reliance,“My Mallely,” and the bitterly anthemic “Reason to Die Young.” But while the latter song might sound right at home on a Pat Benatar album, its outward aural appeal is belied by its lyrics, which lament a generation driven by a hopeless future to seek meaning in martyrdom. In the same way, the upbeat percussion and bouncy synth-horns of “Sold Less Than Gold” provide a disturbing counterpoint to Suarez’s first-person narrative of teenage sex slavery. The use of mainstream melodies on these tracks is not merely ironic, however. Nor it is it simply a candy shell to make the medicine go down. In each case, it also serves as a disconcerting illustration of the resiliency and adaptability of youth, even in the midst of abject miseries – a reminder as troubling as it is reassuring. Of course, there’s also plenty of youthful piss and vinegar to be found: the aforementioned album opener, the decidedly punky “Oil the Shoe if the Critter Knew Any Better” (yes, that is the title), or the snarling “They Fuck You Over,” which sounds almost like a leftover from the early Kiss or Kill EP. But the album’s most intriguing tracks – and the ones that tip it from “exceptionally good” to “great” – are those in which Suarez indulges her flair for the unusual, as in the haunting, howling invocations of “Witchless C Spot,” the quiet, shifting melancholy of “Lonely and Drunk,” or the jaw-dropping “La Uva,” whose psychedelic lurching sounds like a cross between “Tomorrow Never Knows” and an ancient pagan chant, made all the more ominous by guest-vocalist Iggy Pop’s guttural growls.

Featuring a brand-new, but thoroughly tour-tested back-up band, A Raw Youth also finds Le Butcherettes at its tightest, tensest, and most textured, and the band’s audible chemistry no doubt played a role in facilitating the album’s sonic explorations and experimentations. Chris Common proves a versatile percussionist, equally effective laying back or pounding forward, on or off-beat. And the rolling thunder of Jamie Aaron Aux’s bass provides a pervasive motor and muscle, occasionally even taking the lead and allowing Suarez’s guitars and keyboards to ornament, augment, and accentuate with greater expressive freedom. It may be the best Le Butcherettes ensemble yet. As always, though, it is Suarez’s voice that takes center stage. One of rock’s finest vocalists, as well as one of its most dynamic performers, she can soar above the songs with a commanding resonance reminiscent of Grace Slick, chirp in a fragile falsetto, or hiss as threateningly as Clint Eastwood. After channeling Robert Plant on the blues-y “Stab My Back,” she belts out a Riot Grrl scream on “They Fuck You Over” that Kathleen Hannah would envy. But what really sets Suarez apart is her ability to imbue any song with its own distinct and compelling dramatic character. Her striking vocal theatrics have been evident and abundant in all her musical efforts, but they’re always at their most pronounced on her Le Butcherettes albums, and they’ve never been better than on the last two LP’s. The petulant, coquettish lilt she brings to “Sold Less Than Gold” only makes the song that much more affecting and unsettling. On the phenomenal “The Hitch Hiker,” in which a dialogue between a female hitcher and a predatory driver becomes an allegory for patriarchy and resistance, Suarez plays both parts, alternating frantic desperation with seething menace. And “Lonely and Drunk” allows her to run the gamut from airy self-pity, to deep sorrow, to rage and recrimination. It is her intense vocal commitment to each and every song that brings A Raw Youth so powerfully and vividly to life.

It’s worth noting that, “The Raw Youth” was the original English title given to Dostoevsky’s often overlooked penultimate novel, The Adolescent. Ever fond of the sly literary reference, on A Raw Youth, Suarez seems, not only to be paying homage to Dostoevsky’s portrait of generational conflict, but also throwing down the gauntlet before him. While Dostoevsky consistently condemned the young of his generation as foolishly ambitious, prone to rebellious – and, ultimately, violent and nihilistic – convictions, Suarez has delivered an irresistible collection of engaging and exhilarating songs that, for all their tales of martyrdom, sex slavery, and betrayal, seem to unapologetically celebrate the power of youth – in all its vulnerability, defiance, romanticism, rebellion, and naïveté. And why not…? At only 26, with three superlative albums already under her belt, she is, herself, a prime example of what youthful conviction and energy can accomplish. Having lost not an ounce of her trademark ferocity, on A Raw Youth, Suarez has instead expanded its palette, revealing that what burns at its heart is not nihilism, but a genuine, however incendiary, lust for life. As the man himself said, “Youth is pure, if only because it is youth.” For Suarez, it’s that and much, much more…

It Follows

by Matt J. Popham

The slasher subgenre has never been particularly artful but, let’s be honest: it has never needed to be. The directing may be crude, the acting wooden, and the writing barely functional, but all of that is beside the point. (If, in fact, there is one…) As a rule, slasher films are exercises in epicaricacy, propelled by sado-voyeuristic camerawork and steeped in gallons of Grand Guignol gore, any and all creativity channeled into devising increasingly inventive ways to butcher sexually active (and startlingly acerebral) adolescents on screen for the savage delectation of an audience largely made up of the same. In retrospect, it might be possible to read such genre cornerstones as Halloween, Friday the 13th, or Nightmare on Elm Street as primal purges of sexual paranoia in post-free love America, but it would be disingenuous to suggest much in the way of deliberate artistic intent. Which is not to say that these films are not, in their own way, classics, or that they are not, in their own way, thoroughly enjoyable. But their inherent, even willful, artlessness might help illustrate why David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has captured so much popular and critical attention.

Simultaneously entertaining and frustrating, It Follows succeeds admirably at pumping fresh blood into some of the slasher genre’s weariest tropes, while somehow managing to fail at just about everything else. The story is, all at once, fresh and familiar: After a single sexual encounter with her seemingly loving and considerate boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), local looker Jay (Maika Monroe) finds herself being terrorized by an entirely new kind of STD: a Sexually Transmitted Demon that relentlessly pursues its victims (though, at a predictably languid pace) with murderous intent. (Now, that’s what I call venery!) The only way to rid yourself of it, according to an apologetic Hugh, is to pass it along, as (for some reason) it can only follow one person at a time. So, with the aid of her curiously credulous friends and family, creeping threat ever at her rear, Jay sets about trying to conceive of a way to deliver herself from her follower’s advances, or else destroy it entirely.

If it all sounds a bit silly, it is. As a narrative conceit, it’s not significantly smarter than your average slasher film, but what sets It Follows apart from its forebears is not its story so much as its style. Eschewing the slasher’s primitive and overworked leer-and-stalk aesthetic, Mitchell’s camera seems to hover at a dreamy remove creating an uneasy unreality: hazily idyllic in its calmer moments, then lurching nightmarishly into its numerous, often genuinely creepy, chase sequences. Almost entirely bloodless (the body count may set a record low for the genre), It Follows also gracefully sidesteps the slasher film’s fondness for gratuitous indulgence. For a film about sex and death, there’s surprisingly (almost disappointingly, I confess) little of either. Mitchell, instead, anchors the drama in his characters, and it’s a testament to him and his cast that they are what make the film so consistently engaging. Though there seems to have been little to work with on the page, there is a lived-in naturalness and ease to the performances. The relationships, shared experiences, and emotional dynamics among this handful of suburban teenagers is palpable, even when not explicitly stated, making them a far cry from the cardboard casualties-in-waiting we’re used to. It Follows’ most revolutionary departure from the slasher genre, in fact, may be that it relishes its characters’ lives rather than their deaths.

Unfortunately, the deeper failings of the genre can’t be remedied solely by Mitchell’s skillful presentation. Beneath the shiny, new packaging lurks the same old story and, as such, it suffers from the same lack of logic and cohesion. The inescapable irony of It Follows is that it doesn’t. Not narratively. Not thematically. Not aesthetically. It’s not that we need to know what the titular “It” is, or where it comes from, or why it feels compelled to stalk and slaughter sexually active teens. It’s a dark, unknowable, unnamable thing. And, in a horror film, that’s exactly what it should be. The problem is that what little we do understand about it makes it almost comedically absurd. (Take 30 seconds to write down all the questions you have about its abilities and limitations, and I guarantee you’ll be in hysterics before your time is up…) As an unstoppable preternatural force, it would be pathetically easy to outthink and outmaneuver, which makes the all too typical boneheaded behavior and questionable conclusions of our otherwise very believable characters that much more infuriating. The capable pacing and lush atmosphere are enough to distract from the gaping holes while you’re watching, but they become painfully apparent as soon as the credits roll. Some have suggested that the film’s dreamy ambience is enough to excuse these lapses, but there’s a difference between dream logic and illogic, and It Follows is ultimately less Lynch-ian than just lazy.

Most dispiritingly, despite the film’s arty veneer, it’s really not especially artful. Mitchell clearly wants to challenge the genophobia and misogyny endemic to the slasher genre, but lacks the courage of his convictions. His premise may be a laudable step up from the reactionary prudishness of his genre predecessors, but it’s not exactly sex-positive. As a “final girl,” Jay is unconventional due to her “sullied” status, but in all other respects, she’s as reassuringly wholesome (and as slow) as her precursors. Similarly, like his camera, Mitchell seems to be hovering hazily around themes relating to the loss of innocence, but there’s not enough coherence or coordination in his narrative, his allegory, his motifs, or even his compelling visual style for anything comprehensible to effectively emerge. Despite the superlative praise lavished upon it, It Follows is not particularly intelligent, or particularly deep. It’s not even particularly scary. Which is not to say that it’s not diverting, involving, or enjoyable. But it collapses utterly under the slightest scrutiny. It might be significantly better than your average slasher film, but let’s be honest: That’s not saying much.

Ex Machina

by Matt J. Popham

With a few notable exceptions, cinema has, throughout its history, been almost apocalyptically alarmist about the idea of artificial intelligence. Metropolis, 2001, Alien, The Terminator, The Matrix (to name just a few popular examples) all feature thinking machines turning violently on mankind. And as scientists repeatedly assert that the creation of an actual artificial intelligence is right around the corner, many notable authorities, from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk, have urgently warned us of the inherent dangers. Of course, psychologists and neuroscientists have yet to pin down many of the fundamentals of human intelligence – the nature of consciousness, free will, identity and self-awareness – so the question arises, even if an artificial intelligence were to come into existence, how could we be sure…?

Alex Garland’s quiet and disquieting Ex Machina examines many of the issues surrounding the creation of an artificial intelligence, drawing on a vast array of thematically related sources, from Frankenstein to Wittgenstein, from the Book of Genesis to machine ethicists, from Gordon E. Moore to James H. Moor, even paying passing homage to more than a few of the films listed above. But it’s got a lot more meat on its bones and matter in mind than any artlessly assembled pastiche. Set “ten minutes into the future,” according to Garland, the story concerns Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder for a Google-type search engine called Bluebook, who is invited to spend a week at a top secret, high-tech retreat with the company CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Once there, Caleb is asked by Bateman to perform the Turing test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot he has designed, to help him determine if she is, in fact, an AI. All at once, awed and apprehensive, Caleb agrees, only to find himself captivated by Ava – not just her existence, but her essence – a quandary that gives rise to the film’s central dramatic conflicts.

Garland is probably best known as the screen scribe behind Danny Boyle’s breathtaking science fiction thrillers, 28 Days Later… and Sunshine, as well as 2012’s instant cult classic comic adaptation, Dredd; but what’s interesting about Ex Machina is that, despite its speculative sci-fi premise, it feels less like Blade Runner than Betrayal. Considered and contained, it is Garland’s cagey and carefully coordinated character relationships that drive the film. Through a series of superficially informal encounters, Caleb, Nate, and Ava must navigate and negotiate each other’s ulterior motives and covert intentions, none of them being quite what they seem. Take away the handful of impressive (but gracefully understated) VFX shots, and you could almost stage it as a play. Rising expertly to the occasion, Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander deliver controlled, subtly layered performances, deliberately keeping us off-balance and at arm’s length, animus and arithmetic flickering behind their disarmingly casual demeanors.

Perhaps as a result of having spent the better part of his career writing for one of cinema’s most dynamic stylists, Garland wisely reins in the visual flourishes, opting instead to study his characters and their interactions impassively. Using silence and stillness, washing the screen in vivid shades of red, green, and blue, and cutting around the sleek and sterile hallways of Bateman’s hermitage rather than tracking through them, Garland’s visual approach evokes nothing so much as a networked security feed. It’s a strategy that effectively creates an uneasy suspense, making us feel simultaneously omniscient and limited in our perspective, but also allows his unapologetically cerebral writing and superlative cast to take center stage.

Ultimately, Ex Machina, unlike many of its predecessors, is not a parable about the perilous potential of an artificial intelligence run amok. Just as the muted, intellectual dialogues between Ex Machina’s three leads mask more primal impulses, the repeated references to Oppenheimer and invocations of the singularity are red herrings – a narrative sleight-of-hand, distracting us from Garland’s meticulous orchestration of the far more interesting ideas ignited by his characters’ interplay. In a time when the latest neuroscientific studies throw the existence of our own free will increasingly into doubt, as our consciousness and self-awareness seem more and more like post-facto organizational mechanisms than true apprehensions of external stimuli and internal response, Ex Machina uses its premise and performances to unsettlingly blur the lines between our concepts of volition and programming, nature and code, what is “artificial” and what is “genuine.” To be underwhelmed by the film’s admittedly predictable Twilight Zone “twist” ending is to miss the point: If the existence of an artificial intelligence is, in fact, a threat to us, it is no moreso than we are to each other or ourselves..

Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler

scorch

Blake Butler began one of his more recent Vice columns, “Three Short, Savage Books You Have to Read,” by contrasting the tense and tenuous state of the world with the increasingly insular and self-involved state of literature, bemusedly musing on our curious ability to curl up with a good book (and, by implication, write one), losing ourselves in reassuringly clear and concrete narratives, as civilization crumbles outside our windows:

“It’s pretty clear by now that everything is fucked. So much so that even sitting at home and reading seems insane. As such, it’s become more and more difficult for me to believe a narrator who has any kind of clue what they are doing, where we’re headed, or whose world is anything but a constantly mutating maze, where memory and reality collapse into one another as casually as all the other horrors.”

The sentiment so effectively sums up his own authorial approach to his 2010 “novel-in-stories” Scorch Atlas, you could practically reprint it on the dust jacket, though even this expertly expressed post-facto mission statement can’t really prepare you for the marred and molten hell-scape he conjures in the book’s ravaged pages. Scorch Atlas is less a “novel-in-stories” than a found object from our blighted – and not too distant – future: an oral history of the apocalypse relayed by humanity’s remains.

In an unhinged prose that ranges from disoriented near-coherence to a surreal, almost poetic, stream-of-consciousness, Scorch Atlas presents a collection of short stories, descriptive passages, erratic questionnaire responses, and fitfully annotated photo albums documenting mankind’s final days: Outrageous storms relentlessly lay waste to imploded suburbs – blood, feces, concrete, and glass as likely to fall from the sky as rain. Sinkholes open without warning, sucking cars, homes, and humans into infernal oblivion. Bruises, boils, and alien growths erupt on the flesh, the result of unnamed, unknown infections. Gutters and sewers are overrun with the rotting corpses of animals and insects. In its final flickering hours, the television monotonously rattles off the names of the day’s dead. And the sun, even from behind thick layers of toxic clouds, sears the skin of the planet and its beaten survivors.

Hoping for logical explanations, or conventional narratives, in this festering landscape would be as futile as any other hope. Nature, itself, seems to have abandoned all reason, its chaotic revolt filtered through the groping agony of our narrators’ blistered, sun-burst brains. A mother literally destroys herself to care for her demonically feral sons. A man confronts the bloated, babbling undead corpse of his child sprawling in the attic, knowing it can’t be real, but unwilling to turn his back. A woman paddles an old wash basin through a corpse-littered lake towards a black, monolithic wall that appeared ominously overnight, believing it is speaking to her. Many of these individual accounts seem to melt before our eyes into hallucinogenic heatstroke delirium, either retreating from reality, or recoiling as it is rent apart. All of which might make it sound like Scorch Atlas is hard to follow, but there’s no need to follow a book that grips you so violently by the throat and drags you kicking and screaming into its nightmarish depths. Butler’s language of horror is so intense and exhaustive that, by the book’s end, he seems almost at a loss for words, leaving us, correspondingly, thoroughly psychologically drained.

But what ultimately enables Scorch Atlas to really pierce and scar the psyche is that, for all its bizarre and disturbing cataclysmic imagery, like our most uneasy dreams, it is somehow hauntingly familiar and troublingly believable. As our own world teeters on the edge of environmental and economic catastrophe, it’s not hard to imagine an Earth devastated by a blinding sun, unchecked disease, and scant resources. In that light, Butler’s focused descriptions of a deranged, broken planet can seem terrifyingly prophetic. While most of the survivors we encounter still remember a world before whatever unnamed crises reached such disastrous proportions, they exhibit no desire to rebuild. These are not the idealized, heroic post-apocalyptic archetypes we’re used to encountering, determined to forge a new civilization from the wreckage of the former. They are appallingly adaptable human animals struggling merely to maintain their ugly and desolate day-to-day existences, stripped of all hope, determination, or resolve – almost of all volition – by unendurable pain, fatigue, and trauma; reduced to simple, mechanical survival, whatever their current ghastly circumstances, even as the world around them sinks further into ruin. The planet’s environment may be grotesquely warped, even caricatured, but its inhabitants – in their resignations, their rationalizations, their inertia – remain unsettlingly, upsettingly recognizable.

With its vivid scenic renderings and rejection of narrative conventions, Scorch Atlas might be described more as portraiture than literature, its closest cousins being the phantasmagoric, yet gruesomely corporeal works of Hieronymus Bosch or Francis Bacon. It is a map of the end of the world for those of us who might conceivably find ourselves living through it. A short, savage book you have to read.

Algiers

by Matt J. Popham

At a time when so much popular music amounts to little more than premeditated, palliative product, Algiers seems to have sprung fully formed from the head of blind necessity. Though, in fact, the result of eight years of intense labor, the punk/gospel/industrial trio’s dramatic debut delivers an impassioned, incendiary, and irresistible indictment of our current cultural complacency with an arresting immediacy. “We’re the spirits you raised,” vocalist Franklin James Fisher intones on the album’s gripping opening track, “Remains,” and dammit if they don’t sound like Caesar’s ghost heralding our collective demise…

Eschewing gospel’s exultant ecstasies in favor of apocalyptic augury, for all Algiers’ hand-claps and call-and-response choruses, the album’s overall tone is dark, elemental, and austere. Building from a sinister thrum and slash of ambient electronica – so ominous, at times, it recalls a minimalist horror film score – spawning rolling basslines, slicing guitars, haunting keyboards, stings and stabs of post-punk feedback, and thumping, insistent percussion, each song rises up like a looming tidal wave and crests with Fisher’s soulful wails, which sound less like fervent zeal than the anguished pleas of a man caught in the undertow as the music seeps and swells around him.

Evincing an astonishing command of craft, the entire album delivers a slow, deliberate escalation of seething menace. Frontloaded with the band’s slower, more quietly threatening tracks, the first third culminates in the embittered lament “Blood,” which sounds like a chain-gang at a CIA black site, before accelerating into the fiery condemnations of “Old Girl,” “Irony. Utility. Pretext.,” and “But She Was Not Flying.” But even at their most furious and fast-paced, Algiers keeps things rivetingly controlled and contained. With each song, the tide swells but never breaks, often ebbing at the point of highest tension, leaving us stunned, suspended, stretched taut. After the tribal chants and garage rock attack of “Black Eunuch,” the album follows suit, quickly receding into “Games,” a strikingly beautiful dirge which evokes Al Green being haunted by Queens of the Stone Age, followed by the Pentecostal invocations of “In Parallax,” and, finally, the looping instrumental outro, “Untitled,” which cuts out abruptly, leaving only a ghostly echo in its wake.

The whole thing can feel like the musical equivalent of edge-play, but maybe that’s the point. “Death is at your doorstep and you’re still playing games,” Fisher admonishes in “Blood.” Algiers is not offering release or escapism. This is protest music, its punk/gospel fusion consciously freighted with all the historical, political, and cultural baggage of both genres. It might be too heavy to dance to, but – all deference to Emma Goldman – it’s less revolution than revelation. If Algiers leaves us at the brink, it’s because that’s where we’re already standing – culturally, environmentally, economically. And after opening our eyes and ears to our circumstances, our collective complacency, and what awaits us if we allow ourselves to be led over the edge, the next move has to be ours.

It might be unfashionable, these days, to describe a band as “important.” But if Algiers’ debut accomplishes anything, it reminds us that music is supposed to be. Algiers demands – and deserves – attention, not only for their passionate sociopolitical exhortations, or their intensely charged layering of diverse musical sensibilities, but the breathtakingly effective way in which they fold all these elements together, honing them into a powerful, precise, and poignant sonic attack. While a quick survey of the largely banal and barren pop music landscape reveals that, more often than not, we tend to get the bands we deserve, in Algiers, we may have gotten the band that we need.

Whiplash

by Matt J. Popham

There might be a great film lurking in the green-filtered, Fincher-esque shadows of Whiplash’s Shaffer Conservatory, but it never quite makes its way to the screen. Written and directed by aggressively ambitious young filmmaker, Damien Chazelle, the film follows aggressively ambitious young jazz drummer, Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) and the brutal instruction he suffers (and, to a degree, seeks out) at the hands of his renowned conservatory conductor, Terry Fletcher (a reliably impressive J.K. Simmons). Using tactics that might get him hired at Guantanamo, Fletcher ruthlessly pushes Nieman, who ruthlessly pushes himself while ruthlessly pushing everyone else in his life away, all in the name of achieving “greatness.” Though a bit familiar, it’s a fertile formula for fierce drama, and Chazelle attacks his subject (and his audience) as mercilessly as Fletcher batters Nieman. But in his determination to flatten us, he also ends up flattening his film. Beating the worn and weary (and wholly spurious) drum of genius realized through relentless abuse, Chazelle eschews psychological insight in favor of hollow platitudes and visceral thrills, delivering a punishing, pummeling, exhausting portrait of two megalomaniacs who seem a hell of a lot more interested in themselves than in their art. It’s not just that the narcissistic shallowness of both Nieman and Fletcher – their inability to see music as anything more than a means of self-glorification – makes it a stretch for us to believe (as Chazelle seems to want us to) that they have any sort of greatness lurking within them, but that, for a film about music, Whiplash is almost suffocatingly joyless. Its dubious thematic assertions aside, the film is ultimately undone by its own hyperbolic humorlessness and swaggering sadism, which serve to sap both its dramatic potential and its artistic sincerity. Like the solos of Buddy Rich, whom Chazelle clearly adores, Whiplash clobbers you with its intensity, which makes it diverting enough in the moment; but in reflection, it fades into a blustery monotone.