Things that brought me delight in August, 2021:
Catriona Ward, Rawblood
Catriona Ward's Rawblood centers on a family suffering from a mysterious malady that is passed through their bloodline. This "illness" may be madness, inheritable disease, a curse, a haunting or some tangle of those as yet undefined. The narrative combines strands from different time periods and different members of the family across the ages. When things converge they unveil a common tragedy uncommonly rendered: the doom that comes with the all too human failing of misapprehension--of each other and of ourselves.
Ward has a particular and noteworthy talent for depicting mundane horrors; the scenes detailing child abuse, animal experimentation, and the treatment of the mentally ill make all the spectral incursions pale by comparison. Rawblood also plays with my favorite Gothic trope: time being out of joint. In this case, however, it's the future that has "returned" to trouble the present, rather than the past. The skein of this tale is complex, but ultimately satisfying. I love the way Ward uses the Gothic convention of the fragmentary narrative, yet weaves everything together into a model modern ghost story.
King Woman, Celestial Blues
It's been a few years since King Woman's debut album, Created in the Image of Suffering, dropped and immediately blew my mind. Created in the Image of Suffering was my favorite album of the year, but does the King Woman formula hold up on the sophmore effort? Absolutely. The crushing doom is still in full effect, as are the hazy, post-metal aspects of the project's sound. If I had one complaint to make about Celestial Blues, it would likely be an unfair one: King Woman can't catch you by surprise twice, which makes this album both welcome and less impactful.
Abigail Larson, Crimson
I've adored Abigail Larson's art for about a decade now, so it is absolutely wondrous to have such an exquisite collection of her works in hand now. Larson has always had just the right influences to enthrall me: old Gothic tales, mythology, and fairytales all updated with a darkly modern style. The book itself is a treasure; beautiful reproductions, black-edged pages, a nearly malevolent cover...Crimson is perfection itself. And the kickstarter certainly didn't skimp on the extras.
I wasn't sure what Bell Witch would do after releasing the monumental Mirror Reaper; following that masterpiece with another record felt fated to disappoint. Having their next release be a collaboration with downer folk artist Aerial Ruin was a great move: since this isn't a full Bell Witch album, it really can't be compared with Mirror Reaper! And yet, it is a great album in its own right. Stygian Bough is a collaboration in the truest sense of the term. Bell Witch's unusual melancholic doom meshes perfectly with the folk accents provided by Aerial Ruin. Since it is titled "Vol 1" perhaps we will have more of this to look forward to in the future.
Ben Templesmith, Singularity 7
Singularity 7 was Ben Templesmith's first solo series as both writer and artist, which makes it something of a practice run for Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse. I appreciate that the story gets down to business straight away: alien nanites arrive on Earth, transforming one hapless man into the Singularity--a godlike being with the power to either uplift humanity or destroy it. He opts to go the latter route. In contrast, Thanos gets an entire movie before he gains the power to destroy a significant portion of life; here, it's the starting premise.
Opposing the Singularity are the Specials, humans who are have become hosts to nanites instead of being disassembled by them, as is usual. The Specials quest to deliver a bio-engineered virus to the Singularity in hopes of disabling him before the colonizing Masters arrive. If they success, the remnants of humanity might once again crawl forth from their underground bunkers and live on the surface of the world.
Singularity 7 is a curiosity. It feels like the work of an artist discovering how to tell a story, which is probably a nice way of saying that not everything in the comic works well. Templesmith's art style, for example, is not particularly well-suited for the momentum needed in its attempts at epic battles. Still, this has some verve to it that makes it worth picking up, especially since used copies seem to go quite cheaply.
Hooded Menace's particular style of death-doom crawls forth like an ancient abomination, long thought dead, now devastating all in its path. There's something undeniably grimy and crepuscular in Hooded Menace's sound that sets them apart, as does their agnosticism toward a single tempo; though they can do crushing doom with the best of them, there's no stopping their juggernaut of unrelenting riffs when it gets started. And yet, there are even disquietingly placid moments on Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed, such as the classical guitar interlude on "Black Moss," before we plunge once more into the abyss. There's something about Darkness Drips Forth that feels viscous and slimy, like being drowned in mortuary effluvia. These are two great albums from the Hooded Menace catalog; can't wait for the new one to drop next month.
Tanith Lee, The Storm Lord
Based on cover of my copy of Tanith Lee's The Storm Lord, you would be forgiven for thinking that the novel is a tale of blood, thunder, and thews, but in typical Lee fashion the story has a stranger take on sword & sorcery. Lee's protagonist is much, much more morally gray than Howard's barbarian, who I think is misread as an amoral example of the ubermensch. Rather, Conan's strong moral compass is meant to contrast the decadence of the civilization. Raldnor, Lee's protagonist commits acts that Howard likely wouldn't have recorded as part of the tale. For example, the protagonist rapes his beloved. Though he later regrets this and finds himself shameful, Raldnor is a man of contradictions, weakness, and faults the widen like chasms.
It occurs to me that Tanith Lee wrote a better (and far more compact) verion of A Song of Ice and Fire and managed to combine two of its most potent strands into one cohesive fiction with The Storm Lord. The Storm Lord has the political intrigue of Westeros alongside the sword & sorcery exoticism of Essos. Lee's peculiar brand of dreamlike fantasy works surprisingly well with the bits and pieces of sword & sorcery she has borrowed. There's also something Dune-like like about the narrative arc. When Raldnor becomes an emblem of his downtrodden people, he loses his individual personality and becomes something mythical--a king, a god, an ideal. His friends note the difference with a bitter feeling of tragedy; although content to follow him out of awe for his godlike presence, they mourn the loss of the man they called friend.
Even so, the way Raldnor leads his people to liberation isn't of their choosing and has no congruence with their own wants and desires. Like Paul Atreides manipulating the Fremen, Raldnor uses his mental powers to move their hands to violent action in ways that are contrary to their nonviolent nature. This, too, is potent tragedy. The cost of freedom is paid with a violation of personal agency--blatant manipulation is usurped by its more subtle cousin.
Eye of Nix, Black Somnia and Ligeia
Lydia Lunch never really fronted a metal band, but if she did it might sound a bit like Eye of Nix. Listening to both Black Somnia and Ligeia feels like a fiery castigation to which there is no adequate rebuttal. Each album is incredibly dynamic; crashing waves of post-metal give way to blackened doom, operatic damnations, and moments that nearly feel like the stranger ends of Projekt's darkwave catalog.
To me, David Cronenberg's Scanners is a sci-hi/horror cult classic that feels like a fever dream every time I watch it. There are enough factors weighing against it that shouldn't work, such as the sometimes wooden performances, FX that hovers in between realistic and phantasmagoric, the murky ideas, the mystery that is not really a mystery, etc., but it has a way of sticking in your brain that sleeker, more seamless films just can't even begin to approach. Although most infamous for its exploding head scene, Scanners has so much more to offer in addition to the justly celebrated practical effects.
Suicide Forest, Reluctantly
The musical embodiment of despair is back with another bleak slab. Reluctantly begins with all the dreaded pomp of a Bloodborne boss fight, but quickly settles into the depressive black metal groove the project is best known for. Introspective ambiance gives ways to the rending of garments and near-biblical wailing. Reluctantly is the perfect album for those nights where you want to grind away your soul and leave nothing behind.
Sina Grace, Not My Bag
Not My Bag is not at all what I was expected. Somehow, the cover sold me on the idea that it would be a more fantastical affair--something with Lovecraftian sentiments in retail drag, perhaps. Instead, the comic is an autobiographical tale about a cartoonist who takes a high-end retail job when the repair bill for his hybrid car comes due. There is a haunting in Not My Bag, but not of the fun spectral sort; the protagonist is haunted by the ghosts of his prior relationships and haunted by the person he becomes in the course of his job. The thing I admire most about this comic is the creator's willingness to show himself to be naïve, needy, petulant, self-absorbed, snobbish, and petty. At least, I hope that was intentional. However, it looks like he wrote his own wikipedia entry, so I have doubts about his powers of introspection.
Green Lung, Woodland Rites
I don't have a lot of room in my life for modern stoner doom that doesn't say Electric Wizard on the cover, but Green Lung's Woodland Rites is an exception to the rule. The riffs are Sabbath-inspired, as you may well have guessed, but Green Lung add enough folk horror-pagan-"you're going to die in the woods" atmosphere to this slab that they do manage to stand out from all the other kids smoking in their vans.
Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn series continues to be far better than any game tie-in fiction has any right to be. In this volume, Imperial Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn finds himself branded a heretic and subsequently on the run across the universe as he is pursued by his own cohort. Racing against time, he and his allies seek to stop a great evil from the past and clear his name in the eyes of the Imperium. Malleus isn't quite as good as Xenos, and certainly doesn't feature the buffet-style pilfering from a multitude of genres that enlivened the previous book, but this is still a solid and worthwhile read. I will definitely try to find time to read the third novel in the series next month, if possible.
Jess and the Ancient Ones, Vertigo
Jess and the Ancient Ones have never really brought a ton of doom to their occult psychedelia, but Vertigo feels like their heaviest album yet. The vocals soar, the organ grinds maniacally, the guitars and bass couldn't be more retro, yet everything remains upbeat even in the heat of going to some weird, dark places. Vertigo is a great record to give someone just beginning to dip their toe in the hazy occult pool.
In Fabric surprised me. I thought it was be a too-arty-for-its-own good riff on the fashion industry, it is, after all, an A24 film, but instead it's a hauntological combination of horror film and British comedy. Think Scarfolk meets Jam and you've got the right feel.
Which is not to say that In Fabric isn't arty; you're going to have to be in the mood for at least a little bit of pretense to make it through this one. And yet, the laugh-out-loud moments make it all worthwhile, especially if you've ever been a weird person working in the peculiar hell that is retail.
HellLight, Until the Silence Embraces
When the pandemic began, I found that music from my beloved funeral doom genre did not really appeal. Perhaps returning to HellLight for Until the Silence Embraces is a sign that nature is healing. Fans of HellLight will note that their formula has not changed on the new album. Creeping, crushing riffs plod along into the crepuscular apocalypse while keyboards fill the gaps with washes of ethereal, elegiac ambiance. Expect epic-length tracks and the heights of despair.
The Blood Spattered Bride
I had been meaning to watch this for years, but every time I finally found the time I would discover that it was no longer on whatever streaming platform I had tracked it down to. Little did I know that The Blood Spattered Bride was a loose adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's infamous Camilla. I bet Le Fanu never imagined a scene in which his titular vampire is dug up on a beach wearing nothing but a snorkel. In any case, The Blood Spattered Bride rises above many of the other Camilla adaptations by virtue of what it adds to the story. The Blood Spattered Bride posits the vampire women as a kind of eternally recurring response to the misogyny of abusive men. In its way, the film is as influenced by Carmilla as it is the tale of Bluebeard and his brides.
Arcane Existence, Colossus and The Dark Curse
Arcane Existence are a recent discovery for me, but I am already enthralled by their mixture of blackened death metal and melodic orchestral metal. Colossus and The Dark Curse have it all: harsh vocals, piano, crushing riffs, and harp (!!!) collide in various configurations that somehow manage to feel thrilling and new, even if the notion of adding orchestration to heavy music is pretty well-worn at this point. Unexpectedly fresh.
Too many people's names to type out, Gotham Academy Volume 2: Calamity, Gotham Academy Volume 3: Yearbook, Gotham Academy Second Semester Volume 1: Welcome Back, and Gotham Academy Second Semester Volume 2: The Ballad of Olive Silverlock
I read the first volume of Gotham Academy last month, and liked it enough to continue with more volumes to polish it off in August. Calamity picks up where the first volume ended, but introduces a new mystery. It's not quite as interesting as the first go round, but that was admittedly a tough debut to follow.
Yearbook is a different kind of volume; it is a series of vignettes by a variety of authors and artists (too many to mention on the cover, in fact) strung together by not one, but two frame narratives. My one complaint about these volumes of Gotham Academy is that they're tied in to the greater DC universe; they mention something about the Robins being outlawed or something, but honestly that kind of continuity wank is boring to me and detracts from the focus.
Things pick up in Second Semester; at least the continuity stuff seems to have burned itself out. Speaking of burning, these last two volumes finally address the heat that's been building in the previous issues. All in all, this is a solid little series that shows the ways in which the the DC universe can actually be interesting.
Nightfall, At Night We Prey
I haven't been a Nightfall fan for very long, and to be honest I'm mostly familiar with their earliest albums, but I am pleased to report that At Night We Prey is an absolutely ferocious album. The mixture of Gothic and extreme metal styles recalls Moonspell and Rotting Christ, but there are enough quirks here that the album doesn't feel like the work of a cover artist. There's something vaguely "occult" here (which, I realize, is probably a meaningless distinction when it comes to metal) that lends a particularly dark tone to the record.
Nosferatu in Venice
Nosferatu in Venice is an unofficial sequel to Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu. Nosferatu in Venice doesn't have the dreamlike, phantasmagoric beauty of Herzog's film, but it does manage to be a nice slice of Gothic nonsense on its own merits. The fact that the film is watchable at all is a minor miracle given Klaus Kinski's infamous on set tantrums and erratic behavior. Of particular note is the soundtrack for Nosferatu in Venice, which is worth the price of admission alone, in my opinion.
Kody Keplinger and Sara Kipin, Poison Ivy: Thorns
I picked up Poison Ivy: Thorns on a whim because Barnes & Nobles gave me a gift card as a refund instead of doing the sensible thing and just crediting my Visa for a return. Things worked out, though, as I loved this comic. Thorns is a decidedly Gothic take on Poison Ivy's origin story, complete with scenes of wandering a house of secrets by candlelight, with added elements that reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter." You can tell that Thorns isn't the usual DC fair, as the book is in a slightly different format than the standard graphic novel.
Lindsay Schoolcraft, Martyr
Martyr is a solo album by Lindsay Schoolcraft, whom I became aware of during her tenure with Cradle of Filth. Sonically, the album is far afield from Cradle's Hammer Horror-inspired extreme metal; Martyr immediately recalls Evanescence, which shouldn't be too surprising, as Rocky Gray worked on it. Schoolcraft's use of harp on the album definitely sets it apart from the pack. I'm not convinced of the necessity of the Cure cover on this, but then, I never am.
The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf
Nightmare of the Wolf is an animated film set in Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher universe. Rather than continue Geralt's adventures, the movie focuses on Vesemir, the man who trained Geralt in the path of the witcher, and details the events that led to the witcher order facing near-destruction at the hands of angry townsfolk and a particularly vengeful sorceress. The film looks great and it most definitely does not skimp on the blood and guts. The opening scene pulls absolutely no punches! I was keeping it cool prior to this, but now I can't wait for the live action series to return in December.
From the opening strains of saloon-style piano, you know that A Romance with Violence is going to be an unusual sort of metal album. What follows does not disappoint. Taking the Wild West as their point of inspiration, Wayfarer melds black metal to American folk and a country sensibility. It's such an unlikely mix, but it works. The combination of blackened vocals, tremolo riffs, and the occasional Southern Gothic flourish add up to something unique. And, to be honest, A Romance with Violence is Wayfarer's most cohesive expression of this sound to date.
Kendare Blake, Anna Dressed in Blood
Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood is a YA horror novel about a mouthy teenager who hunts murderous ghosts to send to them to the afterlife, but he falls in love with the titular Anna, a ghost in a blood-soaked gown, whom he has moved to Canada to slay. (Happens to the best of us, kid.) An ethical quandary the novel doesn't really explore: does a ghost count as a teenager if they died at age 16 even if fifty years have passed since their death? Is this teenage ghost-hunter being groomed? Anyway, this is a very quick read, no heavy lifting required, and will appeal to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer crowd. I'll hit up the sequel closer to Halloween to check in on whether the boy gets the
girl ghost, in the end.