This movie isn’t good at all.
It’s barely even a movie: it’s like a long episode of Batman: The Animated Series feat. an occasional boob plus a soundtrack of angsty, edgy mallcore. Music was shit-awful in the year 2000, and if you need a reminder, the first Slipknot album is shorter by thirty minutes, so listen to that instead.
What connection does it share to the original Heavy Metal? The title.
Instead of being an anthology, it contains a single bad story based on a graphic novel by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman. The plot (narrated by someone who was definitely making dramatic hand gestures in the vocal booth), involves the Arakacians producing an elixir of immortality and a secret key lost in space and a villainous asteroid miner and a tertiary villain who’s a dinosaur and an xtreme grrl heroine and a second xtreme grrl heroine and a plucky comic relief character who later becomes a sidekick and is replaced by a different plucky comic relief and a plot MacGuffin and Guy DeBord and Roland Barthes and asdf
The film is overloaded with detail and characters, which is usually what happens when you shove a 170 page graphic novel into a VHS player while muttering “fit, damn you. Fit.” The screenplay couldn’t have more holes if it was made of swiss cheese. Where does Tyler get the weapons he uses for the raid on Eden? Why do none of those futuristic space-guns appear in the final showdown, which is fought with spears and swords? Why does becoming evil cause your hair to grow twenty inches?
Action girl #1 is played by Julia Strain. She has boobs. She beats the shit out of people who look at her boobs. What more characterisation do you need? Tyler himself looks like Ruber from 1998’s dose of box office strychnine Quest for Camelot, and exemplifies the problem I have with almost all “crazy” cartoon villains (such as Batman’s Joker): he turns sane and calculating whenever the plot requires him to be. The result is a mechanical artifice of a film where you can feel the interference of the writer on every frame. Why do characters do anything in Heavy Metal 2000? Because Kevin Eastman wanted them to do it.
“Calculating” applies to the film in general. There’s none of the sense of liberty and freedom of the original – it’s a steely-eyed gambler, looking to pull out a cheap score.
Look no further than the film’s SHOCKING ADULT CONTENT…which isn’t integrated in any way to the story! 95% of the film is a bland Saturday morning cartoon, then we get a pointless splash of violence and nudity, then the movie becomes a Saturday morning cartoon again. This is obviously intentional: they set up the movie so they could quickly chop all objectionable content and get a PG-13 rating. The quislings.
The animation is TV quality. Suffice to say that 90s cartoons looked as shitty as 90s music sounded: Heavy Metal 2000 is dark, lacks contrast, and has the palette of an Excedrin headache. Enjoy your browns, grays, and khaki greens. This is like playing Quake, right down to the underwhelming final boss.
This underscores the biggest offense Heavy Metal 2000 commits: it isn’t fun. Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi once said something (aside from “I thought she was 18, your honor”) that I find profound: animation’s strength is that it creates visuals that would be impossible with live action. If you animate visuals that are even more drab and bland than real life, you’re ignoring the possibilities of the medium. Heavy Metal 2000 doesn’t just ignore the possibilities, it hoists the black flag and directly repudiate them. What an ugly fucking film.
Heavy Metal was only barely successful. Heavy Metal 2000 went direct-to-video, and should have gone direct-to-landfill. It killed off attempts to bring Metal Hurlant to life for nearly another 20 years, before an anthology called Love, Death & Robots appeared on Netflix. I haven’t seen it and probably won’t: it’ll likely be a pandering joke full of references to Twitter and trans issues, with a villain called “Tonaald D’rump” or some shit. Heavy Metal is a nostalgic look at the past. As such, it’s best left in the past. The world did not and still does not need another Heavy Metal.
Drop a stone in a pond. Ripples will spread out. Cultural events are similar, but sometimes the ripples occur before the stone falls. Facebook, iPhones, and The Lord of the Rings are stones. Myspace, Blackberries, and The Hobbit are ripples. Although important in their own right, they had the misfortune to occur before a similar (but much bigger) thing, and have been swallowed by it within the public’s mind.
Cassette tapes (and the culture surrounding them) were ripples: the stone would would fall twenty years later. They were ugly plastic rectangles containing about ninety meters of magnetic tape. Music recorded on to the tape usually sounded hissy and noisy (this itself became an aesthetic), but the tapes were so cheap that it was now possible for the average person to copy music. People would tape songs off the radio (complete with hacky DJ voices and commercials), as well as make illegal bootlegs of live bands. This led to a full-blown kulturkampf between tapers and record labels in the 1980s, culminating in the BPI’s often-parodied “Home Taping Is Killing Music” slogan.
While some labels fought cassette tapes, others embraced them. C81, a compilation cassette released by NME at the start of the tape boom, is an example of the latter. It contains twenty-four tracks of British and American “indie” music, circa 1981. I’m sure that all the bands involved were branded as sellouts until their dying day. The tracklisting is as schizophrenic and scattered as any fourteen year old’s mixtape: legends like Pere Ubu and Scritti Politti are placed cheek-in-jowel with bizarre “art” projects like Furious Pig that seemingly did nothing notable except appear on C81. It’s both ethnically and musically diverse, with funk, ska, reggae, dub and so on. Whoever put this together clearly wanted to fuck Lora Logic, because she’s on here twice.
As with many compilations, it sprays and prays. You won’t like everything, but you’ll probably like something. I enjoyed the apocalyptic mini-epic “The Seven Thousand Names of Wah!”, the histrionic but understated “Shouting Out Loud”, the Scritti Politti song, and “Parallel Lines”, which is a thesis on everything punk should be: taught, fraught, and small.
But the best piece of music C81 has to offer is Cabaret Voltaire’s “Raising the Count”, which initiates the listener into a kind of electronic Satanic ritual: a black mass powered by 200 watts. The song is as bleak and repetitive as a pneumatic drill inside your ear canal, and immediately induces a hypnagogic state. Cabaret Voltaire had existed for most of a decade by the time C81 came out, and would continue to release music for about twelve more years (although I find their later techno/house music to be less interesting than their early experimental work).
So, good music, and good capture of a particular moment in British musical history. C81 is now most easily acquired in digital form, which is the next evolutionary stage of tape culture. Cassette tapes were ripples, and digital piracy was the stone, doing everything cassettes had done (including killing the music business) about 5x to 10x more successfully. The record industry profiting off tape trading seems gruesomely poetic in retrospect. It’s as though Louis XVI, years before the French Revolution, had invested royal money in guillotines.
I decided to watch the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal because of its reputation. Like Vegemite and the chanteuse on the first Velvet Underground album, it doesn’t have a good or a bad reputation; it merely has one.
It has 6.7/10 on IMDB and a 60% Rotten Tomatoes score (critics’ consensus: “sexist, juvenile, and dated”). It grossed $20.1 million on a $9.3 million budget, enough to qualify as a mild hit and not enough for a sequel. It’s based upon the Heavy Metal comics anthology, which in turn is derived upon Métal Hurlant, the legendarily explicit French outfit home to everyone from Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri to Moebius; it adapts a number of stories from the comics, which vary from erotica to science fiction to horror. The art style changes from segment to segment, ranging from itchy rotoscoped Bakshi pastiches to stuff that could be a Saturday morning cartoon.
I watched it once. It made an impression. I watched it again. I decided I really liked it.
Halfway through my third rewatch, I thought this is my favorite movie of all time.
Heavy Metal is spellbinding yet rationally hard to defend. I like it more than any movie I’ve ever seen, but what intellectual case can be made for it? It’s embarrassing. There’s a story about a dweeb who visits a fantasy world, gains huge muscles, and has sex with hot babes. The art is sometimes excellent but more often workmanlike. The “groovy, man” tone of the writing hasn’t aged well. If “auteurness” is important to you, this lacks the personality of a Bakshi film or the polish of a Don Bluth. I have no idea who the individual directors are, or what they did before or sense. So what does it have that makes it special?
It has heart. Sincerity. It throws itself before the mercy of the court, and receives a full pardon. Heavy Metal elicits the nostalgia-drenched emotions of a beloved childhood film that I haven’t seen in twenty years, but I first saw it ten months ago. How’s that possible? How can you be Pavlov’s dog and salivate before you hear the bell?
“Soft Landing” is a stop-motion music video depicting a Corvette falling from orbit and landing in a field.
“Grimaldi” provides the framing device: a glowing green orb called the Loc-Nar (“the sum of all evils”) hypnotizes a young girl and shows her visions of the devastation it has wrought across time and space. These visions form the remainder of the film’s shorts. I hate it when words seem like anagrams but aren’t, and “Loc-Nar” is such a word.
“Harry Canyon” is the hard-luck tale of a New York cab driver in 2031 (ten years away!), driving aliens and vaporising mugs. He gets tangled up with a pretty young moll who’s involved with the local goon squad (representative line: “Here I was, stuck with this beautiful girl. I knew she was gonna be nothin’ but trouble”). Might be mistaken as a parody of noir crime, but Heavy Metal is too earnest to parody anything.
“Den” is an adolescent nerd power fantasy. Describing the plot in detail would cause me to break out in pimples and start expressing strong opinions about D&D 5th Ed, so I’ll just say that it’s charming and pleasant, with a wonderful final shot. Den has the voice (but not the physique) of John Candy.
“Captain Sternn”‘s eponymous hero is in a jam. He’s on trial for 12 counts of murder, 22 counts of robbery, 37 counts of rape, et cetera. He thinks he has a plan to get off the hook (no, it doesn’t involve getting a job in the TRUMP ADMINISTRATION, hurr hurr), but as usual the Loc-Nar appears and ruins everything. An entertaining episode, but lightweight one. “Captain Stern” alone out of Heavy Metal‘s shorts could be cut without greatly damaging the overall product. But it’s cute.
“B-17”, by contrast, is horrific. The pilot of a WWII bomber is flying home after a sortie, only to notice that everyone on his plane has died. Or have they? Gruesome and unredeeming, it’s similar to the Aldapuerta short story “Ikarus”, as well as the Twilight Zone episode “Terror at 20,000 Feet”. Great art, and a sense of doom as thick as squid ink.
“So Beautiful & So Dangerous” is about a babelicious fox/foxelicious babe who’s abducted by aliens and decides that anal probes aren’t so bad after all. I haven’t read the original comic, but there’s clearly swathes context being left on the cutting room floor – we never learn what’s causing the “mysterious mutations”, for example. You have to leave room for tits and drug references, and this one certainly does.
“Taarna” is the epic that closes the film and resolves the story of the Loc-Nar. A peaceful people are on the verge of being slaughtered, and only the warrior maiden Taarna can avenge them. A heavily compressed version of a Moebius story, with continuity errors appearing at a rate of about two a minute (random example: how does Taarna get her sword back after escaping the pit?), all of its flaws are obliterated by its grand sweep and epic heft. The short evokes nigh-apocalyptic size: seeing this on a big screen must have been something. There’s some gorgeous panoramic shots of landscapes where every grain of sand seems to be animated – were computers involved?
Describing anything in Heavy Metal is a waste of time: all I can do is describe my reaction to it, which is beyond positive. Heavy Metal stands alone. It needs every concession ever made, and gets them. It kinda sucks, and I don’t care. Best movie ever.
This HBO documentary has so many creepy moments that it’s difficult for any to stand out. Here’s one that did.
Imagine that your kid brother is living a real-life fairytale: he’s best buddies with with the world’s biggest music star. He hangs out at the guy’s cool-ass mansion, eats ice cream and plays videogames with him, hears secrets that Vanity Fair will never know, and has given your entire family access to undreamed of luxury.
It sounds unbelievable, a fantasy concocted by the biggest bullshitter on the playground (“I’m going steady with Miss America! No, you can’t meet her, she goes to another school!”) but this is actually happening, in real life! It’s enough to make you believe in magic.
Years later, you turn on the TV. A child exactly like your younger brother is accusing the pop star of abusing him.
Wouldn’t your brain…implode? Shatter from all the cognitive rewrites it has to do? The fairytale is instantly gone. All of those years of happiness now have a sinister new context. Was this what was happening to your younger brother? All those holidays and funpark rides…was this the price? Why didn’t you spot it? Are you stupid, a rube?
That’s the situation the brother of Wade Robson (one of the two subjects of the documentary, with James Safechuck being the other) found himself in 1993. It’s emblematic of how the Michael Jackson story has ended: too good to be true. I’ve heard alcohol described as a way of robbing happiness from tomorrow. Michael Jackson was cultural alcohol: the past was fun; the hangover, not so much. Although Michael Jackson may have stolen happiness from some people’s present, too.
I grew up in the 90s, and he seemed terrifying: a raceless, genderless skeleton with bleached skin and a face crafted from paper mache. I laughed when people called him a “sex symbol”. For whom? Department store mannequins?
If I’d grown up in the 80s, I might have had different memories: an impossibly talented vocal acrobat who (along with Quincy Jones) created the 80s. But even then, there was the sense of something odd about him, barely out of sight. In 1984 Michael Jackson won eight Grammy awards for Thriller, which had sold thirty four million copies in twenty months. He was accompanied to the awards ceremony by Brooke Shields, then considered one of the most desirable women on the planet. He spent the entire evening ignoring her in favor of twelve-year-old Emmanuel Lewis, who sat on his lap.
Things only deteriorated after Jones left his life. Ten years later, he had a reputation as a talented but eccentric and even faintly sinister man – Howard Hughes with a surgically reconstructed nose. The tabloids aggressively hounded him, and this formed the basis of the narrative upheld by fans to this day: poor Michael Jackson, harassed by the media. Can’t they all just leave him alone? If even half of Leaving Neverland is true, the media didn’t harass him nearly enough.
It’s a documentary about false and true narratives: it doesn’t hide (for example) the fact that Safechuck and Robson testified that Michael Jackson never touched them during the Jim Chandler trial in 1993. However, it puts this in proper context – they were kids who had been Michael’s favorite. They wanted to be his favorite again. They wanted his approval, his love, and when Michael told them what to say in court, they said it.
The documentary runs for four hours. There’s a lot of biographical detail on two people you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re a hardcore Jacko defender with his entire legal saga pinned on the wall with red tape (in which case, your opinions about Safechuck and Robson are probably negative). At first homespun folksy stories of S&R’s childhoods seem pointless, but they quickly prove their worth: Jackson is such a massive figure that it’s easy for everyone in his orbit to seem like a 2D cutouts, as inhuman as the dancing zombies in “Thriller”. The director wanted to make the accusers seem fleshed out and human.
If so, it worked. I believe them. They seem credible. Misremembering a date or a location is typical when twenty five years have passed. As is feeling affection for one’s sexual abuser. There’s detailed descriptions of sex acts, which gives the documentary a compulsive rubbernecking-the-car-crash aspect. Tip: if you don’t want to hear stuff like “In Paris, he introduced me to masturbation”, maybe watch Regular Show instead.
The balance of evidence appears to lean towards Michael, in fact, being a pedophile. Where does this leave Michael Jackson fans? Is he “cancelled”? Is that even possible? There’s a psychological term called “splitting” – the inability some have of understanding that we are vessels containing both good and bad. Michael’s strongest defenders clearly love his music, and certain aspects of his personality (philanthropy, generosity) inspired them. Claims that he molested children represent a threat to those fond memories. Michael Jackson changed peoples’ minds on many things – it was what he loved to do. Watch Finding Neverland, and let him change your mind one final time.
For over eleven years, Reality wore a title it was never meant to bear: that of Last David Bowie Album.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Bowie had every intention of continuing recording and touring. But in 2004 (near the end of the grueling 112-date Reality World Tour) he collapsed on stage in Germany, evidently from a heart attack. The beautiful statue that had worn countless layers of paint had suffered an interior crack.
There were no more tours, no more albums. For over ten years, Reality was the end. It never felt like one: it was a small, transitory album, trivial at times, and lacked an identity. It wasn’t a grand, towering tombstone, with HERE LIES DAVID BOWIE etched in stone.
Maybe its battlefield promotion helped it, giving threadbare songs like “She’ll Drive the Big Car” and “Looking for Water” more attention than they deserved. But after The Next Day came out in 2013, Reality fell into its correct place. It’s in the lower half of Bowie’s albums, which is no demerit. It’s also in the lower half of Bowie’s post-70s work, which probably is.
It has good songs, as they all do. “Pablo Picasso” takes the Modern Lovers’ one-chord pony on new and surprising adventures. “The Loneliest Guy” is very unsettling, like a taut and humming spiderweb of Mike Garson’s reverb-soaked piano and Gerry Leonard’s vibrato-drenched guitar. Bowie seems to be drawing from Scott Walker’s approach to songwriting here, turning the soundscape into a huge blank space that crashes sea-shell-like with the sound of its own emptiness.
“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” is like the last Tin Machine song, very dry and underproduced. The lyrics are both cryptic and heavy-handed, clearly exculpatory of George Bush while not really naming him. I sort of like it.
“Try Some, Buy Some” was originally produced by Phil Spector, and sounds like Regina Spektor. I’ve only listened to it once or twice – a little of this stuff goes a long way.
“Reality” is noisy and quickly becomes unwelcome: it’s like a jam session that nobody has the courage to end. But closing track “Bring Me the Disco King” is another album highlight. It’s another powerful minimalistic song, consisting of Bowie’s voice, Garson’s jazz-influenced piano playing, and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops. The result is enchanting: it has some of the same magic that “Lady Grinning Soul” had, all those years ago. But then Garson starts vamping all sorts of neo-tonal stuff over the outro (as if trying to recapture “Aladdin Sane”), and a lot of the magic leaves.
And then Reality ends. It was supposed to be yet another stone in a road with no clear end or destination: the road of life. The trouble with such a road is that it can just stop at any moment, without warning, and you have to accept that the final moment has come. For a while, Bowie fans had to accept that this album was his Abbey Road. But eleven years later, a new stone appeared.
One of the final books in Gemmell’s Drenai setting, White Wolf introduces a new hero called Skilgannon the Damned.
It’s all here: the fast pace, the brutal fight scenes (Gemmell knows sixty adjectives for an axe splitting a skull), the terse and efficient characterization, the unabashed heroism, and the tension between ideals of good and evil and the complexities of reality. I truly believe that nobody ever did it better.
But “it’s all here” doesn’t feel like an unalloyed compliment, not after twenty five books of mostly the same stuff. Gemmell was an excellent but limited author, and here he paints within the lines, offering up mostly familiar pleasures. The result is a book that, while fun, doesn’t particularly need to exist.
All the usual baddies make an appearance – the Nadir, werebeast “Joinings”, assassins, shamans – as do the typical Gemmell action setpieces (here we get three fights in a tavern as opposed to the usual one or two). Once again, a character renounces their violent ways and tries to become a monk, with predictably disastrous results. And the final encounter, while exciting, couldn’t be more of a videogame boss battle if “One Winged Angel” was playing in the background.
The protagonist Skilgannon poses a particular problem: he’s just a jumble of traits from past Gemmell heroes and never emerges as a compelling and unique character. He has Waylander’s dark past, Druss’s demon-possessed weapon (the actual Druss appears in this novel, muddling things still further), Jon Shannow’s sense of having outlived his time, Tenaka’s sense of being ill-used by someone he trusted, etc. He’s supposed to be an antihero, but he only commits evil acts because of a pair of mind-controlling swords, a bit of thematic oddness that Gemmell never addresses.
Gemmell doesn’t do anything new here, but he does turn up the emotional intensity in a few places. The scenes depicting Skilgannon’s youth were fascinating, linking past Gemmell figures such as Gorben and Michanek and adding a host of new ones. Druss the Legend steals the show every time he appears, to the point where I wished the entire book was about him. And the title’s full meaning is actually pretty interesting, particularly in light of the sequel, The Swords of Night and Day.
I enjoyed White Wolf, both when I read it here and when I read its various bits and pieces in earlier books like Waylander et al. It was probably for the best that Gemmell spent his final years writing quasi-historical fiction (re-telling the Iliad). It forced him outside of his comfort zone. Gemmell incapable of writing anything but a Gemmell novel, but many of his best stories happened when he at least tried.
Maybe you bought this book expecting to learn about the Roman Empire. Good news – you’ll learn a lot!
For example, that Caligula’s sister died at age twenty three due to a “surfeit of buggery” with her brother and “seven outrageously well-endowed studs” (p34). And how when Caligula travelled he “amused himself by taking potshots at the dull-witted peasants in the roadside fields, wielding a sort of projectile-shooting bazooka” (p38). Or how, in the arenas, skilled gladiators could decapitate a man and then direct the pumping jets of blood to spell “Caligula” on the sand, with the falling head forming the dot on the letter i. (p74).
But it wasn’t all fun and games. The most prized animal in the arenas was the “Libyan lion…eleven feet in length, with enormous paws armed with razorsharp (sic) claws of sabre-size dimensions, even their engorged testicles were as large as a man’s head”. Scary! The only way the Romans could subdue the Libyan lion and its engorged testicles was for a “particularly handsome slave to present his shapely, exposed anus to the lion’s mighty sexual apparatus; then, once the act of copulation (which invariably proved terminal for the unfortunate slave, due to unsustainable blood loss) reached its critical point and the lion was momentarily distracted, a gang of a hundred or more whooping slaves would wrestle the lion to the ground and throw a net over it”. (p83)
Divine Carnage is hilarious, and one of the funniest books I’ve read. I’m fighting and so far losing a battle just to fill this review with my favorite parts. Nearly every page of this book has entertainment of some sort: and a good thing, as you won’t find any history (or literacy).
I’m not sure to what extent the authors were in on the joke: it’s either a troll job, a parody of the “edgy history” trend (Dan Carlin, etc), or else one of Creation Books’ typical scams. The back cover has the words “ORGY OF DEATH GLADIATOR KILL”, with all capitals and no punctuation. The copyediting was done by someone throwing a gladius at a keyboard, there are usually multiple spelling and grammar errors on every page. The phrase “plebian scum” is used so often it becomes a tic. Also, the book was written by time travellers: James Havoc’s foreword is copyrighted 1999, but it mentions the “recent” Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, which came out in 2000.
Much of the book was definitely composed while drunk – sometimes the writer’s mind wanders down a little alley and you can see them clumsily make stuff up while staring at an empty glass. For example, the part where we’re told about the Imperial “thumbs up for life, thumbs down for death” thing, with an aside that the emperor’s thumb was actually penetrating a slave’s rectum.
Who are the authors of this masterpiece?
Jeremy Reed is a “Jersey-born poet, novelist, biographer and literary critic”, and Stephen Barber is a longtime Creation Books hack for hire who has written a dozen titles along the lines of “transformative future sex death semiotics in the films of Uwe Boll”. Neither is a historian, but they attack the project with gusto. At the end, Jeremy Reed heroically cites four books as “…an invaluable sources of reference (sic)”, though his final sentence is blunt: “There is no definitive life of Heliogabalus, and I have attempted to resassemble (sic) aspects of his character most likely to resonate in the current times.” Stephen Barber cites no books at all, just the “newly-excavated” Butrinte Caligula, which must be newly excavated indeed, considering that Google offers no evidence that it exists.
It is the first book in the Blood History series that marked Creation’s twilight years as an actual publisher. The second book was Flesh Inferno by Simon Whitechapel, and the third was The Bloody Countess, which was actually a reprint of a 1960s title by surrealist poet Valentine Penrose (whether Creation obtained the necessary legal rights from Penrose’s estate is doubtful). The fourth book exists only in our imaginations.
I’d be remiss not to quote my favorite line from the book, on p96. “Commodus was certainly the first post-modern Roman emperor”. That sentence sums it up. Creation Books ripped off a lot of people, but they did not rip off me. Not here.
Every culture has a beloved national dish that amounts to “take all the leftovers and put it in a pot”. Hours is David Bowie’s version of that, an unfocused collection of tracks from a videogame, an unfinished Reeves Gabrels solo album, plus some other crap, with a production job so bad it ruptured time and space.
Look at the cover. You pretty much already much know how it sounds. Light, breezy, housewife-hooking AOR pop rock with no real edge or bite. Bowie tried to get TLC to guest on “Thursday’s Child”. I don’t know what’s sadder: that he seriously had that idea or that it probably would have worked.
“Thursday’s Child” is the big hit single. It features a lame R&B-inspired backbeat, gratuitous female backing vocals, and greasy, syrupy synths. Someone once said that synths are to American musicians what firewater was to the Native Americans. I agree, and wish they were what smallpox blankets were for the Indians.
“Something in the Air” is six minutes of boredom and glitchy sound effects. I don’t know what Reeves Gabrels is playing on guitar. It doesn’t relate to the music in any way. It’s like they recorded him noodling at soundcheck time and put it on the record. This was Gabrels’ final studio release with Bowie, quitting while he was behind.
“Seven” is an acoustic song with loud obnoxious slide guitar parts. Not bad, but anyone could have written it.
“What’s Really Crappening” is Bowie’s infamous “cyber-song”, meaning its recording was broadcast via livestream. There were probably people who racked up a $40 phone bill over their 56ks listening to Bowie make this – they should have watched the video of the dancing baby instead. The lyrics were partially written by a fan, Alex Grant, who won a contest on Bowie’s website. Nobody can find any trace of Grant now. He may have entered the witness protection program.
“Brilliant Adventure” is etc…
You get the idea. I dislike hours greatly, there’s something cold and dead about it that I don’t hear in any of the other “bad” Bowie albums. Even Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine I have odd charm that renders them lovable from a certain perspective, but this has none (and no artistry either). This is a strong contender for the worst thing Bowie ever recorded on a major label.
The digital sampler is one of the great musical instruments of its ages, nearly equal to the electric guitar. Or maybe it’s an anti-instrument – rather than creating music, it takes the music of other people, and fascinatingly tortures it to death.
The Akai MPC sampler is to music what the AK-47 is to firearms – a mass-produced weapon that allowed peasants to get into the game. Not knowing a damned thing about music was no longer an obstacle to making it. Illiterate rappers could slice parts out of someone else’s tracks, reconstruct them into Frankensteinian monstrosities, and play the results to a crowded dancefloor. Sampling culture reveled in taking music out of its natural environment, and shoving square pegs into round holes. It put Beethoven’s Fifth over hip hop beats, and uncool dad rock over souped-up breakbeats. Much of the Mona Lisa’s effect comes from the fact that you must pass through an austere gallery before you see it. It would have a different impact if you saw it in a sewer. Sampling works by the same principle: it allows us to hear old music in a new way, breaking preconceptions and forcing the mind into unfamiliar paths.
Bowie’s 1997 album makes a fetish out of sampling. Most of Reeve Gabrels’ guitar riffs are actually recorded samples. Wild scratchy noises spray like jets of graffiti from an aerosol can: these are saxophones, sped up and glitched in the studio.
It’s also supposed to be a celebration of jungle music, a style he was quite enamored with at the time. In the press, he referred to it as “the great cry of the twentieth century”. On tour he split the set into two halves – a rock set and a drum ‘n’ bass set. Critics didn’t like it, and neither did his fans. After he noticed that most of his audience left after the rock set ended, he defiantly put the drum ‘n’ bass set first for the remainder of the dates. Jungle was pretty trendy and oversaturated by this point, which didn’t do him any favours with the cognoscenti. It was as he’d decided in 2001 that rap-metal was the great cry of the twenty-first century.
Regardless, Earthling is aggressive, cartoonish, excessive, and brilliant at times. Most of the tracks speed along like little mechanical rabbits, flurries of breakbeats trying to throw you out of the groove. “Dead Man Walking” proves itself the strongest cut, with a tough KMFDM groove mixed with introspective lyrics: Bowie is pondering his own sell-by date. “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” is also pretty strong, ending the record on an apocalyptic note. The music seems to be blasting from lamppost speakers while chlorine gas swirls below.
“Seven Years in Tibet” is rather long-winded, featuring a kick and snare sample that seems inspired by Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” (or maybe it is that kick and snare! I’m not sure). The song plods along, with massive gravitas, before exploding into an incandescent fireball of guitars. Bowie was a Free Tibet supporter for many decades: “Silly Boy Blue” on his first LP deals with it, and although he forgot about all those early songs, he never forgot Tibet.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” is more KMFDM-sounding material, with Bowie using synths the way he used Ronson’s guitars in the past, as riffs for him to emote over. The song was a rare chart hit in the United States. For the last time, they had to be afraid of him.
Although the two sound nothing alike, Earthling was made in the same spirit as Low. “How can I make human musicians sound like robots?” Low achieved this with motorik, synthesizers, layered drums, and Brian Eno. Earthling uses computers. For the first time, Bowie was cut on ones and zeros. Right around the corner were BowieNet, Bowie Bonds, BowieBanc, and all the rest.
Earthling is a fascinating example of an album that doesn’t particularly want to be loved or hated, just remembered. There was nowhere to go from here. How do you follow up excess? Even more excess? Bowie course-corrected after this with the stripped back …hours, landing so hard back on earth with that he buried the record in the ground. His subsequent records tended to be conservative and calculating, carefully doling out “experimentation” one pinch at a time. Earthling is a special moment: the final time Bowie truly went mad in the studio.
1. Outside is a masterpiece, Bowie’s greatest work in fifteen years, and barring a nanotechnological rebirth, will be his greatest work in the remaining sum of human years. (Sadly, I don’t believe Blackstar finishes as well as it began.)
But it’s exhausting. “Heroes” charges you up, this album drains you dry. The occasional pop song (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”, “Strangers When We Meet”) falls like a sweet berry between filth-stained cobblestones of industrial metal, avant-garde jazz, spoken-word interludes, and atonal ambiance. Sometimes the music seems to be reaching too far, and I feel I’m becoming lost. But when the next chord change hits, things always fall back into place.
Some parts I still don’t understand: in particular, the album concept. Something about ritualistic human sacrifice, a private detective, and characters called things like Algeria Touchshriek and Leon Blank. References are made to the “world wide Internet”, and Richard Preston’s alarming 1994 nonfiction book The Hot Zone. Something seems to have happened to this world, an event that Bowie won’t allow us to know. We’re peering through the window, guessing. We’re outside.
Maybe there’s not even a single concept. Like Diamond Dogs, Outside is a musical patchwork quilt, assembled from the wrack of a few different projects. In 1994, Q Magazine asked him for a “week in the life” type diary. Bowie felt that his real life wasn’t quite as exiting as they were probably hoping, so he wrote a fake diary by one Nathan Adler (this diary is reprinted in Outside’s liner notes). Two years earlier, he’d re-united with Brian Eno, and attempted to form a kind of avant-garde supergroup (much of their work eventually saw release on the internet as the Leon Suite.)
In addition to Eno, Bowie has his most powerful lineup in years. Carlos Alomar is back (holy shit!), as is Reeve Gabrels, whose rhythm tracks are distorted to near Static-X levels. Mike Garson makes a very welcome appearance – if you liked the middle fifty-five bars of “Aladdin Sane”, Bowie just gives him six kilometers of rope on this album. He just lays down solo after solo, on track after track, shredding Bowie’s chord progressions with hailstorms of chromatic notes.
The internet, or “information superhighway” (as it was ponderously called in 1995) is a big influence here. Outside seems married to it, somehow. Here’s a David Bowie FAQ from 1996 or so: it’s interesting to read Bowie’s fascination with computers (the digital art accompanying the Q Magazine story was created by him, somehow). Soon BowieNet would exist.
Picking out great tracks is hard, but I really like four. They come in groups of two, each positioned next to each other on the tracklisting (ignoring a segue).
“A Small Plot of Land” is aggressive, ear-bleeding jazz, paying tribute to Scott Walker and nearly upstaging him. “Hallo Spaceboy” is an industrial dance experiment that makes “Pallas Athena” sound like “All of the Dudes”. “Thru’ These Architects’ Eyes” riffs of Thomas Aquinas’s idea of God being an architect, and takes the album to new, celestial heights. And closing track “Strangers When We Meet” is powerful, dark, and tuneful. A perfect song to end on.
Some Bowie albums are best without their context. Outside is best with it. It’s flotsam from a confused and turbulent time in human’s history, when zero started to became one. Bowie was much better than average at predicting the future, but here we see him caught up amidst manifesting predictions – society unease and turmoil, and a digital pantokrator set to pave over humanity with silicon wafer. The album was meant to have a sequel, called Inside. This never materialised, but the wheels of time still turn, and soon we will see Inside for itself.