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2013, the best of the year

We’re a couple of weeks away from Christmas and the end of the year, so it’s time to look back with a critical eye over the past twelve-ish months and the words, pictures and sounds I consumed during that period. Because not everything is equal, some have to be best – and they are the following:

BOOKS
UnderTheVolcano1 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) A classic of British literature and rightly so. I fell in love with Lowry’s prose after reading ‘Into the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven thy Dwelling Place, although I already had a copy of the novel at the time (I’d picked out the collection, Under the Volcano and Ultramarine from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks back in 2010). Anyway, Under the Volcano contains prose to be treasured, though I recommend reading Ultramarine and Lowry’s short fiction first as it is semi-autobiographical and you can pick out the bits he’s used and re-used. This book was also in my Best of the half-year.

wintersbone2 Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I’d bought this because I thought the film was so good and because Woodrell had been recommended to me. But instead of the well-crafted crime novel I was expecting to read, I found a beautifully-written – and surprisingly short – literary novel set in the Ozarks that was perhaps even better than the movie adaptation. I plan to read more by Woodrell. Winter’s Bone was also in my Best of the half-year.

empty3 Empty Space: A Haunting, M John Harrison (2012) The third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and I’m pretty damn sure I’ll have to reread all three again some time soon. Although the fulcrum of the story is Anna Waterman and the strange physics which seems to coalesce about her, Empty Space: A Haunting also does something quite strange and wonderful with its deployment of fairly common sf tropes, and I think that’s the real strength of the book – if not of the whole trilogy. And this is another one that was in my Best of the half-year.

sons4 Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) When I looked back over what I’d read during 2013, I was surprised to find I held this book in higher regard than I had previously. And higher than most of the other books I’d read during the year too, of course. At the half-year mark, I’d only given it an honourable mention, but it seems to have lingered and grown in my mind since then. It is perhaps somewhat loosely-structured for modern tastes, but there can be little doubt Lawrence fully deserves his high stature in British literature.

promised_moon5 Promised the Moon, Stephanie Nolan (2003) I did a lot of research for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and this was the best of the books on the Mercury 13. But even in its own right, it was a fascinating read and, while sympathetic to its topic, it neither tried to exaggerate the Mercury 13′s importance nor make them out to be more astonishing than they already were. If you read one book about the Mercury 13, make it this one.

Honourable mentions: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013), an exciting debut that made me remember why I read science fiction; Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972), beautifully-written tall tales presented as Marco Polo’s report to a khan; The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989), a masterclass in writing accessible sf, this book needs to be back in print; The Day Of The Scorpion, Paul Scott (1968), the second book of the Raj Quartet and another demonstration of his masterful control of voice; The Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996), funny and charming in equal measure; The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry & Jared Shurin (2013), some excellent stories but also a beautifully-produced volume; Sealab, Ben Hellwarth (2012), a fascinating history of the US’s programme to develop an underwater habitat; Cities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1987), a thinly-disguised novelisation of the US oil companies’ entry into Saudi, must get the rest of the trilogy; and Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010), Vikings and werewolves are definitely not my thing but this rang some really interesting changes on what I’d expected to be a routine fantasy, must get the next book in the series…

Oops. Bit of a genre failure there – only one sf novel makes it into my top five, and that was published last year not this; although four genre books do get honourable mentions – two from 2013, one from 2010 and one from 1989. I really must read more recent science fiction. Perhaps I can make that a reading challenge for 2014, to read each new sf novel as I purchase it. And I really must make an effort to read more short fiction in 2014 too.

FILMS
about-elly-dvd1 About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) A group of young professionals from Tehran go to spend the weekend at a villa on the Caspian Sea. One of the wives persuades her daughter’s teacher, Elly, to accompany them (because she wants to match-make between the teacher and her brother, visiting from his home in Germany). Halfway through the weekend, Elly vanishes… and what had started out as a drama about family relationships turns into something very different and unexpected. This film made my Best of the half-year.

consequences2 The Consequences Of Love, Paolo Sorrentino (2004) The phrase “stylish thriller” could have been coined to describe this film, even if at times – as one critic remarked – it does resemble a car commercial. A man lives alone in a hotel in a small town in Switzerland. Once a week, a suitcase containing several million dollars is dropped off in his hotel room. He drives to a local bank, watches as the money is counted by hand and then deposited in his account. One day, the young woman who works in the hotel bar demands to know why he always ignores her… and everything changes.

lemepris3 Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I don’t really like Godard’s films, so the fact I liked this one so much took me completely by surprise. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little Fellini’s if it had been made by Michelangelo Antonioni. I like , I like Antonioni’s films. Perhaps the characters are all drawn a little too broadly – the swaggering American producer, the urbane European director (played by Fritz Lang), the struggling novelist turned screenwriter, and, er, Brigitte Bardot. Another film that made my Best of the half-year.

onlyyesterday_548494 Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) An animated film from Studio Ghibli which dispenses entirely with whimsy and/or genre trappings. A young woman goes to stay with relatives in the country and reflects on what she wants out of life. The flashback sequences showing her as a young girl are drawn with a more cartoon-like style which contrasts perfectly with the impressively painterly sequences set in the countryside. Without a doubt the best Ghibli I’ve seen to date… and I’ve seen over half of them so far. Once again, a film that made my Best of the half-year.

gravity5 Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón (2013) I had to think twice whether or not to put this in my top five. It was the only film I saw at the cinema this year, and I suspect seeing it in IMAX 3D may have coloured my judgement. To be fair, it is visually spectacular. And I loved seeing all that hardware done realistically and accurately on the screen. But. The story is weak, the characters are dismayingly incompetent and super-competent by turns, some of the science has been fudged when it didn’t need to be, and it often feels a little like a missed opportunity more than anything else. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve seen it on Blu-Ray…

Honourable mentions: She Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008), an elegantly-shot documentary on the Mercury 13; Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish but subtle and powerful; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), astonishing meta-cinema from the beginnings of the medium; Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011), Brit Marling is definitely becoming someone to watch; Love in the Afternoon, Éric Rohmer (1972), the best of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales; The Confrontation, Miklós Jancsó (1969), more socialist declamatory and posturing as a group of students stage their own revolution; Tears For Sale, Uroš Sotjanović (2008), CGI-heavy Serbian folk-tale, feels a little like Jeunet… but funny and without the annoying whimsy; Ikarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963), a Czech sf film from the 1960s, what’s not to love?; Dear Diary, Nanni Moretti (1993), an entertaining and clever paean to Rome and the Italian islands, and a rueful look at the Italian health service; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a poignant and beautifully-played character-study of the Emperor Hirohito in 1945.

This year for a change I’m also naming and shaming the worst films I watched in 2013. They were: The Atomic Submarine, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1959), a typical B-movie of the period with the eponymous underwater vessel finding an alien saucer deep beneath the waves; Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow, Michael Schroeder (1993), an unofficial sequel to the Van Damme vehicle and notable only for being Angelina Jolie’s first starring role; The Girl from Rio, Jésus Franco (1969), Shirley Eaton as Sumuru, leader of the women-only nation of Femina, plans to take over the world, it starts out as a cheap thriller but turns into cheaper titillatory sf; The 25th Reich, Stephen Amis (2012), WWII GIs in Australia find a UFO, go back in time millions of years to when it crashed, then a Nazi spy steals it and ushers in an interplanetary Nazi regime, bad acting and even worse CGI; Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, Jonas Pate (2012), they took everything that had been good about Battlestar Galactica and removed it, leaving only brainless military characters and CGI battle scenes.

ALBUMS
construct1 Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) Every time Dark Tranquillity release a new album, it makes my best of the year. I guess I must be a fan then. In truth, they are probably my favourite band and their last half-dozen albums have each been consistently better than the one before. So many bands seem to plateau at some point during their career but DT amazingly just get better and better. This album was on my Best of the half-year.

spiritual2 Spiritual Migration, Persefone (2013) Another band who improves with each subsequent album. And they’re good live too – although I’ve only seen them the once (they really should tour the UK again; soon). This is strong progressive death metal, with some excellent guitar playing and a very nice line in piano accompaniment. I didn’t buy this album until the second half of the year, which is why it didn’t appear in the half-year list.

DeathWalks3 Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album by a favourite band after far too long a wait, so this was pretty sure to make my top five. Noumena play melodic death/doom metal, an inimitably Finnish genre, but they also use clean vocals, and a female vocalist, quite a bit. One song even features a trumpet solo. I posted the promo video to one track, ‘Sleep’, on my blog here. And the album also made my Best of the Half-Year.

Winterfylleth-The-Threnody-Of-Triumph4 The Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) I first saw Winterfylleth live before they were signed back in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden at the Day of Unrest (see here), and I’ve seen them a couple of times since. This, their latest album, shows how far they’ve come and amply demonstrates why they’re so good. They call it English heritage black metal, which I think just means they sing about English historical sort of things (the band’s name is Anglo-Saxon for “October”). Another album from my Best of the half-year.

Of-breath-and-bone5 Of Breath And Bone, Be’lakor (2012) On first listen I thought, oh I like this, it deserves to be played loud. And it really does – it’s not just that Be’lakor, an Australian melodic death metal band, have excellent riffs, but also that there’s a lot more going on in their music than just those riffs. The more I listen to Of Breath And Bone, the more I like it – originally I only gave it an honourable mention in my Best of the half-year, but having played the album so much throughout 2013, I think it deserves a promotion.

Honourable mentions: Dustwalker, Fen (2013), shoegazery black metal that works extremely well; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), excellent sophomore EP from a Polish death metal band, with an astonishingly good opening track (see here); Unborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013), a demo from a Finnish death/doom band, and very very heavy, sort of a bit like a doomy version of Demilich, in fact, but without the vocal fry register singing; Shrine of the New Generation Slaves, Riverside (2013), more polished, er, Polish progginess, a little rockier than the previous album, although one track does include some very melodic “sexamaphone” [sic]; All Is One, Orphaned Land, proggier than previous albums but still with that very distinctive sound of their own, incorporating both Arabic and Hebrew; and Nespithe, Demilich (1993), a classic piece of Finnish death metal history, I picked up a copy of the re-mastered edition at Bloodstock – there’s a special Demilich compilation album, 20th Adversary of Emptiness, due to be released early next year, I’ve already pre-ordered it.

One of the things I really like about metal is that it’s an international genre, and here is the proof – the bands named above hail from Sweden, Andorra, Finland, the UK, Australia, Israel and Poland. There’s also quite a good mix of metal genres, from death to black metal, with a bit of prog thrown in for good measure.


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Ten essential metal albums

I don’t write about music very often on this blog, but given that my tastes in that field are just as fringe as they are in literature perhaps that’s no surprise. (Mind you, there probably is a small overlap between science fiction readers and death metal fans – certainly I know a handful of people who qualify as both.) But another reason is that, as the late great Frank Zappa once said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. And it’s only recently that I’ve starting buying books on architecture – well, books of photographs of Brutalist and Modernist buildings, and those designed by, for example, Oscar Niemeyer…

Anyway, on my way home from the Gojira gig earlier this week, I challenged a friend to come up with a list of ten essential metal albums. He’ll post his on The Mix Eclectic. We didn’t bother to define “essential”, but agreed only that we were allowed five additional “honourable mentions”. At the time I issued the challenge, I thought it would be quite easy… but, of course, such things never are. There were a few obvious picks, and they, in turn, defined what “essential” meant to me as regards this list. It means albums I always return to, ones I play again and again, even years after I bought them. They’re not necessarily seminal in their chosen genre, they’re not especially important albums in the progression of metal (death or otherwise). They’re just albums I love.

And the list goes like this…

Skycontact, Phlebotomized (1997, Netherlands) Phlebotomized were a short-lived band during the Netherlands’ brief flowering of great death metal talent in the 1990s. They recorded a pair of EPs and a pair of albums. Skycontact was their second and last album. Their CDs now go for silly money on eBay. Skycontact is elegiac, mournful, and yet quite beautiful at times. There’s even a violin in it. ‘A Cry in July’ is an especially stand-out track.

Projector, Dark Tranquillity (1999, Sweden) This is the album that introduced me to Dark Tranquillity, and made me a fan of the group. It’s perhaps their most commercial album, and certainly it shows the breadth of their music – from the crunching riffs of the opening track ‘FreeCard’ to the synth-heavy ‘Day to End’ to the near-ballad ‘Auctioned’. Despite the somewhat mordant tone to the lyrics, Projector is an album that never fails to put me in a good mood. To date, I’ve seen Dark Tranquillity perform live four times, and it’s about bloody time they toured the UK again.

Blackwater Park, Opeth (2001, Sweden) This may well be the high-water mark for Opeth. It’s the first album by them I bought and I still consider it their best. The preceding album, Still Life, is excellent, but its songs don’t quite gel in the way Blackwater Park‘s do. This album has the perfect mix of Opeth’s trademark complex heaviness and acoustic interludes. The title track alone is a work of genius. I’ve seen Opeth live four times to date, and will be seeing them again later this year. They usually put on a damn good show.

Still At Arms Length, The Provenance (2002, Sweden) The Provenance disbanded in 2006 after four albums. Still At Arms Length was their second. It’s a hard-to-describe mix of death, gothic, doom and progressive metal. With a flute. Like some other Scandinavian metal bands, vocals were shared between male and female, with the male vocals often sung as growls. But there’s something about The Provenance’s songs which lift them above others of their ilk. They were more experimental – in their sound and their song structures – than their peers. And like all the best death metal bands, they could play a mean and heavy riff. I regret never getting to see them perform live.

Worlds Beyond the Veil, Mithras (2003, UK) I forget where I first heard Mithras, but I remember being immediately captivated by the combination of spacey ambient synth and furiously insane guitar and drumming. They’re probably the most science-fictional death metal I’ve ever heard – or rather, there’s something about their music which speaks to me of the best of science fiction. Which is probably why I used the lyrics to this album in a short story – originally published in Jupiter magazine, but also posted on my blog here. I’ve seen Mithras live twice – the first time at the Day of Unrest mini-festival in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden; and I remember being exhausted after their set just from listening to the music. They have a new album due out later this year, On Strange Loops; and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone, Akercocke (2005, UK) I first came across Akercocke in 2005, when they supported Opeth at the Forum in London. I vaguely recall being impressed by the sheer noise they made, and the fact that they all wore suit and tie on stage. (They were sometimes called “Satan’s bankers” because of their stage attire.) However, it wasn’t until I saw them perform in the small room at the Corporation, supporting their Antichrist album, that I became a fan. I saw them once more before they split up. Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone is my favourite of their albums (and has a great title, too), with its abrupt changes from furious blackened death metal to slow and mournful acoustic parts. The opener ‘Verdelet’ is probably my favourite Akercocke track, too.

Red for Fire + Black for Death, Solefald (2005/2006, Norway) This one is a bit of a cheat as it was released as two albums, though the band wrote it as a single project. It is based on an Icelandic edda about Bragi, a court poet who dallies with the queen but is forced to flee when it is discovered. The album is a mix of post-black metal, Icelandic poetry, and even some jazz fusion. It’s the sheer variety that appeals as much as the individual songs.

The Diarist, Dark Lunacy (2006, Italy) Metal is well-suited to concept albums, and this is true of death metal as much as any other branch of the genre. The diarist of the title is a woman trapped in Stalingrad during the siege by the Nazis. The tracks successfully evoke the time and place, though without losing sight of its musical genre. There’s an epic quality to Dark Lunacy’s music which I think this album showcases especially well. I have never seen the band live but I would very much like to.

A New Constellation, NahemaH (2009, Spain) I was tricked into buying a NahemaH album. The label had put a sticker on the cover of the band’s second album, The Second Philosophy, which likened it to Opeth. Thinking that might appeal, I bought it. And listened to it. And discovered it was nothing like Opeth. But I hung onto the CD because I suspected it might be a grower. And so it proved. Within a few months I was listening to it constantly. And everything that was good, and that appealed to me, about The Second Philosophy is just more so in A New Constellation. It’s a death metal / prog metal wall of sound, accomplished and complex. I really want to see NahemaH live.

Annihilation of the Wicked, Nile (2005, US) I wanted Nile to be in this list of ten, but I couldn’t think which album to pick. In the end, I plumped for this one because it best displays their fusion of Ancient Egyptian themes and relentless US death metal. It’s like exploring the pyramids while suffering from a heart attack. The track ‘The Burning Pits of Duat’ allegedly features drumming at 320 bpm. Which is astonishing. Nile are a fixture on the death metal scene, and for good reason. I’ll get to see them for the first time at this year’s Bloodstock festival.

For my five honourable mentions, I picked:

Reflections of the I, Winds (2002, Norway) A mix of classical music and progressive metal by a side-project of four members of other metal bands.

Mabool, Orphaned Land (2004, Israel) Death metal, prog metal and Middle Eastern music in a concept album about the Flood.

Shin-Ken, Persefone (2009, Andorra) A polished mix of death metal and progressive metal from Andorra’s finest musical export. It’s a concept album too.

Leviathan, Mastodon (2004, US) Another mix of metal subgenres, and another concept album. There seems to be a pattern here…

Sowberry Hagan, Ultraphallus (2011, Belgium) It should sound like sheer noise, but it doesn’t. An astonishing musical balancing act.

There were so many other albums I wanted to pick, like As Night Conquers Day, Autumn Leaves (1999, Denmark), wihch is a favourite album, or something by Anathema (but I couldn’t think which of their albums was especially typical), or Themes, Silent Stream of Godless Elegy (2000, Czech Republic), which provides an excellent sample of their sound but does include a couple of duff tracks…

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