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My favorite albums of 2013, #1-10

1. DeafheavenSunbather

This album made it on to more “best of” lists than I can count, which is quite a feat for an American black metal band on Deathwish. But Sunbather is a landmark album, one that best found a way to merge post-rock sensibilities with black metal’s core power. Though this is not a concept album, it feels like one, because you begin with the reflections of class division and America’s religion of materialism on “Dream House” and end with the hopeless declaration that finishes “The Pecan Tree”: “I am my father’s son/ I am no one/ I cannot love/ It’s in my blood.” It feels like an outsider manifesto that doesn’t really believe in itself. There’s a lot of familiar ground here, particularly a strong affinity for early Jesu, and these guys owe a big debt to Wolves In the Throne Room, but Sunbather manages to carve out its own mark in a bold way. This is an album that will be remembered for a long time. Oh, and they can pull it off live, something very few bands this heavy can claim.

2. GorgutsColored Sands

The best band with the dumbest name. Guitarist/vocalist Luc LeMay finally found the right people to reform Gorguts with, notably trained/monster musicians Colin Marston and Kevin Hufnagel of Dysryhthmia. The result is a tour de force of composition and LeMay’s evil-genius approach to rhythmic dissonance. It’s an inspiring album, one of the few in the “tech metal” genre that I think is worth its salt. Album opener “Le Toit Du Monde” was one of my favorite songs of the year, but I also loved the nasty martial grooves the band locks into on “Enemies of Compassion.” I’ve loved this band since 1993, why stop now?

3. The Dillinger Escape PlanOne of Us Is the Killer

To me, this is the album where DEP figured it all out. They could play it safe with a Calculating Infinity repeat, or trot or more radio-friendly fare like “Milk Lizard,” etc. This is the perfect middle ground, and particularly showcases once and for all just how good a vocalist Greg Puciato is. This album was on such heavy rotation for me in 2013, and “Paranoia Shields” was a particular favorite – a great example of what I’m talking about with all the elements coming together.

4. MogwaiLes Revenants Soundtrack

Mogwai’s appropriately haunting soundtrack for a French TV show about the dead coming back to life was a staple soundtrack for my miserable daily slog into Hoboken. I love Mogwai’s soundtrack work, as it shows off the moodier, “softer” side of the band, and in this case is very piano-driven. Beautiful songs, and the album rewards multiple listens.

5. Russian CirclesMemorial

Less heavy than Empros, which I absolutely loved, Memorial is Russian Circle’s most concise effort. And that’s my beef with it – that it isn’t longer, damn it! Like Dillinger, I feel like RS really hit its stride on this album and decided to really show off what it can do. As a result, the band just created a new high water mark for this kind of instrumental post-metal. Pelican should take notes. (Also, bassist Brian Cook is awesome on Twitter.) This was another “commuting” album, and “1777” is part of this daydream I have about a comet slamming into Secaucus…

6. Nine Inch NailsHesitation Marks

This was a surprise for me. I’m a big NIN guy, but I haven’t liked much that Reznor has done with the band since Year Zero. Happily Hesitation Marks is a mash-up of old NIN with some of the best elements of the new. Pino Palladino’s basslines throughout are fuckin’ nasty, and I like the ’80s pop feel of “Everything,” which I know lots of people loathed. These people are dumb. However, the album does peter out toward the end and could’ve used some more muscle here and there, but overall much of this nestled happily in my brain since coming out. Plus who can beat the David Lynch video for “Came Back Haunted”? Also of note: the “VEVO presents” series Reznor did is outstanding. NIN with back-up soul singers! Everybody dance! (Seriously!)

7. Palms, Palms

This album was divisive, as is much of Chino Moreno’s side-project work. To me it’s a great blend of later-era Isis and Deftones that in the end manages to stake its own ground pretty well. My only quibble with the album is the “Kokomo” vibe it veers into suddenly on “Tropics,” but otherwise I really liked this. (The official video for “Future Warrior” is an abridged version of the song but hey, it features a tattooed model cavorting about!)

8. GrouperThe Man Who Died In His Boat

I came late to the Grouper party, but I’m glad I snuck in. This is dreamy, ethereal stuff, with echoing vocals smeared over ambient-folk minimalism. I really ate up this kind of thing in 2013, as two other albums are similar to this and come later in the list – Chelsea Wolfe’s Pain Is Beauty and Julianna Barwick’s Nepenthe. I think over time I will wind up turning more to Chelsea Wolfe, but I listened to Grouper a lot this year and only got into Pain Is Beauty late in the year, so that’s why this ranks so high. Also, I love the concept: Liz Harris’  childhood memory of watching an unmanned boat washing ashore, its captain presumed to have drowned at some point. Hence the album’s haunting isolationism and creeping claustrophobia. There’s a lot here that puts me in the same space as Jasper TX, and I’m glad someone else is exploring this realm now that Dag Rosenqvist has pulled the plug on that project.

9. Cult of Luna, Vertikal

This album, an homage to Metropolis, seemed to fly below the radar this year. It’s challenging and atypical of post-metal these days, but I also think there are moments here that represent the finest work Cult of Luna has ever done. My issue with these guys continues to be the one-dimensional approach of the singer, who often drags down what would otherwise be transcendent songs – really, that’s how good the other musicians are in this band. (Mouth of the Architect’s new album was also ruined by horrible vocals, which is why they’re not on my list this year, even though I love the music.) “Vicarious Redemption,” the 19-minute midpoint of Vertikal, was by far one of my favorite songs of the year. There’s more here than some bands manage to pull off in years of playing.

10. Pearl Jam, Lightning Bolt

Probably the biggest surprise for me in 2013 was this album. I haven’t bothered with Pearl Jam since Yield, and I wound up checking this out on a bored whim just to see what they were doing now after all this time. Well, here ya go, a great album full of solid songs, hooks that never leave your brain…all the reasons that made me like Pearl Jam so much when they first burst onto the scene. “Swallowed Whole” is easily one of the band’s best songs since the Ten days. I’m not ashamed to say, I played the shit out of this.

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Latest

Just finished Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Amazing and awesome. Starting the sequel today, The Year of the Flood.

Finished The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which was good but not as thorough as I wanted.

Finished The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Also blazed through Colson Whitehead’s criminally underrated “zombie novel” Zone One.

Finally I’m not sure I mentioned reading I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, which was incredibly dark – especially given when it was written – and gripping.

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Catching up

At some point I need to catch up on reviewing stuff I’ve finished. Which includes:

Prophets of the Ghost Ants, by Clark Thomas Carlton. First book read in e-book form.

Embassytown, by China Mieville. Huge disappointment, terrible ending. Possibly the last Mieville book I’ll read.

Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny. Off-the-wall ’60s pulp fantasy.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller. Awesome.

Hiroshima, by John Hersey. Also awesome.

Most of Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. A bit dated and frustrating to read.

And most of The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. Okay, not exactly what I wanted from this book. Will probably finish it at some point this month.

Just started The Hunger Games for the hell of it.

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Backlog…

Things got a bit off track with reading/reviewing, and I’m going to try and catch up in the next few days. I’ve completed Stupid Wars, A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz, Ilium by Dan Simmons, and Deepsix by Jack McDevitt. I’m on to Aztec Autumn right now, by Gary Jennings, the sequel to Aztec, which is my favorite work of historical fiction.

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Dud: “Agyar,” by Steven Brust (2004)

"I'm not a vampire! Let's talk about Rimbaud and this peacoat I'm wearing."

This was the first time I’ve dipped a toe into Steven Brust, who is perhaps best known for his work with Neil Gaiman on Sandman and his 13-part Vlad Taltos series, which began in the early ’80s. Brust is a niche writer revered in certain pockets, and Agyar, while certainly not his best-known book by any stretch, comes with a hefty degree of critical acclaim.

Why, I have no idea. This is a short book in which literally nothing happens for the first 100 pages. It gave me no reason to keep going.

Agyar‘s claim to fame is that it’s a vampire novel that never mentions the word “vampire.” Instead it’s more of a reflection on the nature of immortality and love through the eyes of our titular bloodsucker. What it actually amounts to is the boring memoir ramblings of a vampire who discovers a typewriter in the attic and decides to write disconnected musings about house parties and some gauzy plot where another not-vampire asks him to take the blame for a murder she’s going to commit. That’s about it.

Agyar wanders around and thinks deep thoughts like a freshman Lit major at your local liberal arts college. Shame the guy is like 200 years old and never evolved past this.

Unfortunately there’s not much else to be said about this book. I think vampire fans will read anything that has even a remote connection to the undead and give it 5 stars. I’ll probably give Brust a second chance by checking out the Vlad Taltos series at some point, but I won’t be in any rush after picking up this snoozer.

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Review: “A Dance With Dragons,” by George R.R. Martin (2011)

The book that made me want a Kindle/Nook

Score: 3 stars (out of 5)

Following along with George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus A Song of Ice and Fire has not been easy. The first three books came at a reasonable pace, each roughly two years apart. A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series, was a spectacular feat of modern fantasy writing that elevated Martin beyond the realm of a standard fantasy writer. But then came the Long Wait – it’s taken Martin 11 years to crank out the last two books in the series. In that time, A Game of Thrones has been transformed into an excellent HBO series, and it’s safe to say that Martin has fully crossed over into the American cultural mainstream.

All that raises the stakes for this ongoing saga. Part of what made A Storm of Swords so good were the masterful twists – the Red Wedding and what happened with the Lannisters – not to mention that incredible action up at the Wall. That’s going to make for some excellent TV. And part of what has plagued A Song of Ice and Fire since Swords is the meandering direction Martin took with book four, A Feast For Crows, and his latest, A Dance With Dragons.

My biggest complaint with A Dance With Dragons is that it takes almost 700 pages for anything of real impact to actually happen. Too many of the plot threads devolve into boring travelogues. Tyrion, in particular, spends the book wandering about without much rhyme or reason. Daenerys spends most of the book engaged in petty palace intrigues in Mereen that really aren’t that intriguing. The sudden shift from this rampaging bringer of freedom in the East to this insecure little girl waiting for her Prince to arrive is very jarring. And the Jon Snow chapters never really go anywhere – we see him playing second fiddle to Stannis’ bizarre war plans.

Jamie’s single chapter in the book, which only exists to create another twist with Brienne and the Hound, should have been left out and included as a main thread in the next book. Its inclusion here made it a cheap “gotcha” chapter that added nothing to the story.

Other main characters are drifting about with ever-decreasing intensity. Cersei makes an appearance that is somewhat predictable; Arya continues to run around with the mysterious Faceless Men in a manner so ponderous that I found myself wishing that Martin would either kill her off or find a proper way to return her to the larger narrative.

Easily the most annoying aspect of this book is that Martin has done a 180 away from killing his characters off. Now we have people coming back from the dead, or switcharoos where people we thought were killed right in front of us were actually someone else. And most of the Starks are skinwalkers, something explained in the prologue that completely drains the Jon Snow “cliffhanger” ending of any real impact.

The main point of A Dance With Dragons seems to be Martin’s way of moving all the pieces in place for some kind of massive…something. The problem is, for the past 2,000 or so pages, there’s been too much set-up and not enough action. The bloat of additional POV characters and the expansion of the series’ geographic scope has created too many dangling subplots – half of them uninteresting now – and not enough of a sense of cohesion. At the end of A Dance With Dragons we’ve got two dragons flying around on the loose, Dany covered in shit in a field somewhere, and half the characters sailing to her or trying to find her as part of some plot to claim the Iron Throne. This could easily not end very well.

There were some redeeming qualities of the book. I really enjoyed Theon’s chapters, and the strange developments with Bran are very interesting. The thread with Stannis vs. the Boltons is interesting, albeit totally confusing. And the emerging sense of Varys’ scheming is impressive.

But really, we waited so many years for this? A Dance With Dragons needs better editing, and I’m hoping against hope that we don’t have to wait six years for a 1,300 page tome stuffed with so much filler.

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Review: “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara (1974)

Finished June 8, 2011

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

The Killer Angels, written in 1974 and awarded the Pultizer Prize for fiction the next year, is Michael Shaara’s classic novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. This may be as good as historical fiction gets, written with tight, poetic prose that steers away from the massive causes and effects surrounding the battle, focusing instead on the thoughts of some of the battle’s key players. This is not a war novel per se, even though it is touted as one. Rather, it is a very human novel, a series of interlocking stories about faith, belief, and the struggle of men finding themselves displaced by the sudden evolution of progress.

Almost everyone knows at least something about the Battle of Gettysburg. Rather than simply retell the history through the eyes of the commanders of both armies, Shaara instead opts for a ground-level approach, dropping the reader directly into the minds of these men in the day before the battle starts. You’re struck both by the similarities and differences, in the absolute belief that each man begins with, and how each is shaken is his own way by the time the battle is over.

The story is told primarily through the eyes of four commanders – Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet on the Confederacy, and Joshua Chamberlain and John Buford on the Union side. Shaara makes these men very real; Lee, a larger-than-life figure in modern history, is a tired old man, searching his heart from guidance from God whether or not to wage a full frontal assault on Cemetery Ridge that fateful day. Longstreet reveres the man but is a thinker outside of his own time. He understands the reality of what warfare had become by 1863, and knew he would be sending thousands of men to their deaths by ordering a frontal assault on the elevated, fortified position. Longstreet’s private and ultimately resigned despair is a powerful theme in the book, as Shaara takes us through his process of first understanding that what he was ordered to do was hopeless, and then, ultimately, why he goes along with it.

It would be unfair to paint either side in this tale as the villain or the victor. Chamberlain, a professor of rhetoric who volunteered to fight for the Union, seems most of all awed by the enormity of what is happening and his place in something so important and yet so senseless. His is a disembodied account, dreamlike. Shaara opts to present the details of the battle not in graphic detail but as the smoke, screaming, death and confusion that it surely presented itself as to the people who were there. Through this Pickett’s Charge isn’t even a specific event, but a wave in an ongoing sea, and then it is all over.

I was surprised at how beautiful this book is. Given its subject matter I was afraid that it would moralize too much on one side or the other, and that didn’t interest me; nor would I have been compelled to read if it was just a minute-to-minute blow-by-blow of the battle. Shaara zeroed in on the personal struggles that these men faced in this battle, which I think gives the reader the greatest understanding of why these events happened. Nothing as complex as the Civil War can be boiled down to a straightforward cause and effect chart, not when men on both sides carried the same faith and in many ways fought for a variation on the same cause. How Shaara presents the battle is compelling and devastating because he makes it possible to understand, as senseless as it was. This is surely why the book is as good as it is and remains one of the best in its genre.

Thanks to Dee for this book.

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