Return of the American Soldier: Americana (1983, directed by David Carradine)


The year is 1973.  The American Solider (played by David Carradine, who also directed) has just been discharged from Vietnam and is now hitchhiking across an America that he no longer understands.  When he reaches a small town in Kansas, he stumbles across a run-down carousel sitting in an overgrown field.  The Soldier decided to spend the night camping in the field and, the next morning, he sets out to rebuild the old merry-go-round.

No one in town can understand why the Soldier is doing what he is doing.  The local teenagers harass him while a silent and beautiful girl in a white dress (played by Carradine’s then-partner, Barbara Hershey) brings him a toolbox but runs away whenever the Soldier tries to speak with her.  Some of the older townspeople, led by gas station owner Mike (Michael Greene), help the Soldier by giving him odd jobs and deals on equipment and tools.   But, when the Soldier refuses to attend a weekly cockfight, both Mike and eventually the entire town turns against him.

Even with the community refusing to help, the Soldier continues his work.  Finally, the Soldier needs only one last piece to complete the restoration.  Mike agrees to give it to him on the condition that the Soldier first fight a dog.

Based on the 1948 novel, The Perfect Round, Americana was a passion project for both David Carradine and Barbara Hershey.   They first learned of the book and its story in 1969.  Four years later, using the money that he made starring in Kung Fu, Carradine purchased the rights to the novel and set out to the bring the story to the screen.  As producer, director, editor, and star, Carradine had complete artistic control over the project.  This was both a blessing and a curse because Carradine spent a total of 8 years editing his film.  It then took another two years for Americana to finally be picked up by a distributor, Crown International Pictures.  Ten years after filming began, Americana was finally released in 1983.  Carradine was shooting new scenes up until two weeks before the film’s release, which explains why the Soldier suddenly and dramatically ages an hour into the completed movie.

Americana may be strange but it’s not bad.  In some ways, it reminded me of what First Blood would have been like if, instead of going on a rampage, Rambo had taken the Sheriff’s advice and moved on to the next town.   It has its share of pretentious moments but the overall story, about a man who, having seen so much destruction in Vietnam, now just wants to build something good, shines through.  Even if her character never makes sense, Barbara Hershey is stunningly beautiful and Carradine is effectively low-key as the Soldier.  Even Americana‘s controversial ending works as a statement about sacrifice.  Much like the characters played by John Wayne in The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Soldier’s role is to defend and improve a society that has no place for him inside of it.

If Americana had been released in 1973, it probably would have been ahead of its time.  Few people wanted to talk about Vietnam, much less go to a movie that was a metaphor for the entire conflict.  When Americana was was released in 1983, people were more interested in refighting the war and achieving victory with Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris and had little interest in Carradine’s more thoughtful approach.  Americana got pushed into obscurity but David Carradine’s vision of post-war America is still worth watching.

The American Photography of Carol M. Highsmith


Ever since the 1980s, Carol M. Highsmith has been exploring America and taking photographs of what she finds.  Starting in 2009, Highsmith has been donating her life’s work of more than 100,000 images to the Library of Congress.  Highsmith’s photographs emphasizes the corners and parts of America that are in danger of disappearing in the face of progress and development.  By donating them royalty-free, Highsmith has provided people everywhere with the chance to see parts of America that they might not otherwise have the chance to experience.  As a photographer, she’s been a huge influence on my own work.

I first wrote about Carol Highsmith and her work in 2012.  This year, for the 4th of July, I’m going to share more of Highsmith’s American photography.  The first 10 pictures below were taken in Texas.  The rest were taken elsewhere.

Oregon

Arizona

Missouri

Wyoming

Wyoming

 

My Top 15 Albums of 2017


Hi! Still existing and loving my family, hope the same goes for all of you. I may be retired from all else in the music world, but the year end list is eternal.

Sample size: I have 83 albums released in 2017 at the time of writing this. Can’t promise I actually listened to all of them.

Surgeon General’s Warning: Ranking music is silly and I generally discourage it.  (But I do it once a year anyway…….)

15. Chinese Man – Shikantaza

trip hop/hip hop

Sample track: Liar

fun French hip hop/trip hop album that seems to have gotten overlooked a lot. I listened to it a ton earlier this year. It’s not something I’ll remember years down the road, but it certainly earned a spot for as much as I played it.


14. Elder – Reflections of a Floating World

stoner prog

Sample track: Sanctuary

For me personally, this is probably the most unorthodox pick on my list, because it is heavily rock-centric in all the ways that typically turn me off. God but something about rock and roll has always felt absolutely soulless to me in a way that few genres can match at their worst. But Elder just do what they do so damn well that it’s impossible to hate this opus. An endless onslaught of prog ingenuity with a nice stoner rock crunch that keeps it driving from start to finish. It’s 64 straight minutes of ear candy without a dull note in the mix, and I have a world of respect for how flawlessly these guys accomplished what they set out to do.


13. Krallice – Go Be Forgotten

post-black metal

Sample track: This Forest For Which We Have Killed

Krallice are responsible for a lot of the best music to come out this decade, and in 2017 they pumped out two new ones (both painfully late into the year for a band that requires a lot of repetition to fully appreciate). While I haven’t actually read anything about either of these yet, the distinctly different styles between them have me pretty convinced that Mick Barr wrote the bulk of this one and Colin Marston took charge on the other. Go Be Forgotten gets off to a glorious start with its opening track, but the remainder has so far failed to really captivate me to the extent that most of their previous works did. It doesn’t raise the bar (or if it does, it hasn’t sunk in yet), but it’s still a fascinating exploration of highly complex soundscapes that few other artists have the technical precision to delve. And god that opening riff is sick. Krallice will be a perpetual year end contender as long they keep doing what they do.


12. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

folk rock

Sample track: When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay

I have mixed feelings about this album, and my inclination is to point out the negative; suffice to say, it’s not lacking in universal praise. It wouldn’t be on my list if I didn’t love it. The reason it’s not higher is that, as I see it, Tillman too often defaults to rather throw-away lines. That’s not inherently problematic (see: my #1 pick), but I think it clashes with the more refined, theatrical vibe of the sound around them. Simple case in point: Total Entertainment Forever kicks off with an absolutely delicious line–Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift–and follows it up with something so generic that I feel it only exists to achieve a rhyme–after mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes. Sometimes gentle flaws make a work all the more endearing, but Pure Comedy goes too big and refined to get away with it for me. I feel like he aimed extraordinarily high and almost got there.


11. Tchornobog – Tchornobog

blackened death metal

Sample track: II: Hallucinatory Black Breath Of Possession (Mountain-Eye Amalgamation)

A landscape album as only blackened death metal can paint one. Tchornobog takes you on a 64 minute journey across an entirely unpleasant and stomach-turning waste of all purpose ugliness that really reflected how I’ve felt about the world this year any time I let my attention range beyond my immediate household. We’re talking death metal aesthetics here so yes, that can be a compliment. And while the visions are certainly exotic, there’s not much surrealism of the lofty, artistic sort you find on say, a Blut Aus Nord album. It’s just leaves you feeling kind of dirty. It hit a note I could appreciate while maintaining enough melody and progression to avoid succumbing to redundancy.


10. Hell – Hell

doom sludge

Sample track: Machitikos

Ridiculously heavy slow-rolled sludge that shouldn’t require any genre appreciation to crush your skull. At its peek on “Machitikos”, the quality of this album is unreal. Unfortunately I was pretty late to the ballgame, and their more ambient moments are going to take more than a sporadic month to leave a lasting impression or definitively fail to. Nowhere to move but further up the charts for this one.


9. Nokturnal Mortum – Істина

pagan metal

Sample track: Дика Вира

We’ve certainly come a long way from Knjaz Varggoth screaming hateful nonsense to crackling cassette recordings of Dollar General synth, and as endearing as Nokturnal Mortum’s early works may be, you can’t deny that he has matured (both musically and intellectually) substantially over the years. This album thoroughly lacks the trademark Eastern European folk metal execution that Knjaz inspired more than perhaps anyone else: brutally hammered folk jingles lashing out violently from beneath a wall of modern noise. Істина is a lot more even keel, to such an extent that its metal elements almost feel unnecessary at times. It fully embraces the more cerebral, orchestral sound we began to hear on Weltanschauung and leaves most else behind, achieving a new height in terms of orchestration. I do miss Knjaz’s more passionate explosions, but I don’t consider that a flaw. The real down side to the album for me stems from the studio. For all of its grand instrumental diversity, the complete package is a bit washed out. Everything feels like it’s playing in the background as a supporting element to a non-existent centerpiece. It’s something I’m certainly used to–Nokturnal Mortum have always struggled a bit on the finer finishing touches of sound production–but it’s still a fault that’s hard to ignore. An incredibly solid album that could have been even better.


8. Riivaus – Lyoden Taudein Ja Kirouksin

black metal

Sample track: Vihan Temppeli

This is probably the most unknown album on my list. It’s just straight-up black metal. No frills. No novelties. Really it’s the sort of thing I rarely listen to these days, because most great bm artists have moved on to more experimental fronts. But this is tight as fuck. The riffs are great and it’s got a nice punchy pace and a crisp tone that suits the mood perfectly. Outstanding debut from an unheard of artist. Hoping he sticks around for many years to come.


7. Thundercat – Drunk

funk/jazz

Sample track: Bus in These Streets

A tongue-in-cheek dreamfunk fantasy. Artists who can let a cheesy sound be cheesy often accidentally stumble into brilliance. This guy makes some of the goofiest sounds that funk and jazz have ever imagined somehow feel endearing. I’m also pretty impressed by how distinct his sound is. I mean, considering how radically uninformed on this sort of style I am, it kind of blew my mind that I could instantly go “this guy must have wrote the bass lines to Wesley’s Theory“. I think Drunk is an incredibly well-craft work masked behind a delicious veil of comedy. And it’s given us such eloquent 21st century mottos as “thank god for technology, because where would we be if we couldn’t tweet our thoughts?”


6. Krallice – Loüm

post-black metal

Sample track: Etemenanki

If Go Be Forgotten offered Krallice’s most deranged opening melody to date, Loüm might take the prize for their heaviest boot in the ass. Etemenanki hammers down all the brutality of a headbanger’s wet dream from the first note without budging an inch on Krallice’s classic eclectic tremolo noodling. I don’t think I’ve wanted to just open my mouth and shout “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” to a Krallice song this bad since Inhume. As with Go Be Forgotten, there’s a serious question of whether the album as a whole is really that great or if the opening song just carries it, and that’s not to knock the rest so much as to say that by Krallice’s ridiculously high standards I think it might have some mediocrity. You can never really tell with most Krallice songs until you’ve heard them four dozen times. It’s complicated, intricate shit that your brain doesn’t instinctively unravel. My gut tells me that Loüm will keep on growing on me in a way that Go Be Forgotten may struggle to, and I was right about that with Prelapsarian’s incredibly late release last year. (Yes, it is amazing.) The only lasting down point about Loüm for me is, surprisingly, the addition of Dave Edwardson (Neurosis, Tribes of Neurot) on vocals. He does a killer job, but I am shamelessly in love with Nick McMaster’s vox and can’t help but miss them.


5. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

folk

Sample track: Crow

Phil Elverum’s wife died last year, and he wrote this album. It’s artistically significant for reasons that are pointless to explain, because I think you will either already get it or it will fundamentally conflict with whatever life coping mechanism you personally subscribe to, and both are fine. It matters to me more than other albums about death because we appear to share roughly the same world view. It isn’t my favorite album of the year because it can’t be.


4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers

post-rock

Sample track: Bosses Hang

I somehow managed to ignore the rebirth of GY!BE in spite of being entirely aware of it, and this is the first album I’ve listened to by them since Yanqui U.X.O. fifteen years ago. In the meantime, I’ve become an avid consumer of Silver Mt Zion, and after that long of a break it’s easy to forget just how different the two projects were. I’m at a loss for words to properly describe how I feel about Luciferian Towers because I have nothing remotely current and similar to compare it to. “Bosses Hang” and “Anthem For No State” are both absolutely mind blowing, and I usually skip the first and third tracks and don’t even care. This is the greatest band in post-rock being exactly that.


3. Kendrick Lamar – Damn

hip hop

Sample track: DNA

Every time I saw this album top another year-end list, I wanted to move it further down mine. It doesn’t move me on an emotional level like To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s not Kendrick’s greatest work. Can it really be the best of 2017? But every time I revised my year-end list, it just kept moving up instead. Everything he touches has a subtle finesse to it. I love the sound of his voice. I love the way he weaves it into the instrumentation flawlessly. I love how every aspect of each song seems painstakingly tailored to suit the intended vibe. I can just really get into this from start to finish time after time with zero effort. It was my 2017 fallback the grand bulk of the times I wasn’t in the mood for something dark or heavy. This album makes me feel empowered every time I put it on with no cheap sense of escapism attached, and god did I need something like that.


2. Boris – Dear

drone/doom/psych/post-rock

Sample track: Dystopia (Vanishing Point)

Wow. This is 16th year that I’ve compiled a year-end list. For the grand majority of that time, I would have named Boris in my top 5 favorite bands if you asked me. During that time, they’ve put out 53 releases just that I have managed to acquire. And not one has earned my #1 slot. Smile came so close. So close. And now I’m saying it again. I almost feel guilty leaving Dear at #2. It was never dropping any lower. But if you’re at all familiar with it, this might sound generous. Dear is nowhere near their most well-received album. It is absolutely nowhere near their most accessible. Doom and drone at its core, it’s a slow drip grind that will leave all but the most steadfast fans bored out of their minds on first encounter. Yet I somehow managed to listen to it close to 50 freaking times. It wasn’t that I liked it at first. I kind of didn’t. But the mood was right. It hit that sweet spot between ambience and melody that made it never quite dull enough to bore inherently but never quite memorable enough to bore through familiarity. It was dark but it wasn’t morbid. It was just the right sort of fuzz to make me feel more alert without distracting me. And it was through that extremely passive but relentless pattern of listening that its finest moments slowly revealed themselves to me, raising the bar higher and higher, until now it blows my mind that a track like Dystopia (Vanishing Point) could have failed to sweep me off my feet on first encounter. It certainly manages to every time now, on take number one hundred and god knows what. This isn’t my favorite Boris album, but I suspect it’s much higher up there for me than for most fans, and after a very great deal of consideration it only failed to take the title by a fraction of a hair. Oh, I also got to watch them play it live in its entirety. 😀


1. Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood

Americana

Sample track: Lone Star

The grand prize goes to Sun Kil Moon. I think this might be for me what Pure Comedy has been for a lot of other people this year. It just speaks to so much I’ve been feeling in 2017 in a way I can completely relate to. Mark Kozelek takes half of the stuff I’ve been making enemies spouting all year and sets it to solid American folk music. He has a blue collar political perspective that offers no compromise for our “total fucking asshole” President but takes far more cutting hits at liberal America’s zero-attention-span reaction-click-and-move-on culture for allowing the country to fall into this state. The album is a two hours and ten minutes meandering disjointed travel through personal stories and monologues that reach all over the place, but underneath it all is a consistent love and appreciation for the bonds we share in our meager little lives, and an intense compassion for those who have permanently lost them. If he comes across as cranky, he’s just pissed at how many Americans have lost sight of this.

Previous years on Shattered Lens:

2011 / 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016

4 Shots From 4 Films: The Natural, Eight Men Out, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams


Today we celebrate the 4th of July, the United States’ Independence Day, and I mean the one from British rule and not from invading aliens.

This day has always been about the balance of one’s level of patriotism (or lackof), gathering with friends and family for barbecues and fireworks. I would also like to add that the 4th of July has also meant watching or listening to one’s favorite baseball team. Baseball, for me at least, will always remain America’s national past time.

So, here are four films that one should check out this day, or any day to understand why baseball remains such a major part for some people’s lives.

4 SHOTS FROM 4 FILMS

The Natural (dir. Barry Levinson)

The Natural (dir. Barry Levinson)

Eight Men Out (dir. by John Sayles)

Eight Men Out (dir. by John Sayles)

Bull Durham (dir. by Ron Shelton)

Bull Durham (dir. by Ron Shelton)

Field of Dreams (dir. by Phil Alden Robinson)

Field of Dreams (dir. by Phil Alden Robinson)

Review: Panopticon – Roads to the North


Two years removed, Kentucky has left a unique long-term impression in my mind. For all of the excitement over an authentic and well-crafted mingling of traditional Appalachian folk and black metal–the term “blackgrass” got tossed around a lot–I honestly don’t remember how most of the songs went. This is because Kentucky‘s message managed to trump its sound. I remember the old man talking about organizing strikes against the coal company. I remember Sarah Ogan Gunning’s boldly defiant calls to overthrow capitalism. I think of settlers slaughtering Indians, mountains blown into dust, rivers running black with pollution, grim-faced miners broken in body but never in spirit, a modern generation abandoning everything their ancestors worked so hard to accomplish… That is my memory of Kentucky.

Chase the Grain

I can’t detach myself from Kentucky enough to appreciate Roads to the North as an independent entity. That’s probably fine. I had never heard of Panopticon before Austin Lunn nailed his bloody heart to his sleeve in 2012, and that identity will persist through my perception so long as it remains true. Roads to the North has no explicit message, no lyrics sheet, no spoken tracks or American folk covers. But it has Kentucky, and because of that every song takes on a deeper, more robust meaning than it might have otherwise.

It would be interesting to know what a folk/black metal fan unfamiliar with Panopticon takes from this album. Does the music alone stand far above and beyond the norm? I like to think it does. The album incorporates some entirely unexpected but highly effective melodic death metal moments, especially in the opening track “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong”. This track also gives us perhaps Lunn’s best incorporation of fiddle directly into black metal to date. “The Long Road Part 2: Capricious Miles” transitions out with a long and enthralling jazzy progressive rock chill reminiscent of mid-era Opeth. The whistle in “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky” sounds nothing like what we’re used to out of the European scenes, harkening instead to a western indigenous sound I have only heard from some obscure Mexican folk metal bands. “The Long Road Part 1: One Last Fire” is an unconventional six minute acoustic bluegrass piece that feels more like something straight out of Lunn’s imagination than Appalachia.

The intensity hops around so suddenly that Roads to the North may feel disjointed at first, but the stark contrasts are never forced. Because you don’t always see them coming, they are striking rather than cliche. Lunn performs each of the album’s myriad instruments better than a lot of people who specialize in only one, and there aren’t many producers on the black metal market that can compare to Colin Marston. He has a knack for subtlety that is hard to come by in the scene. I absolutely love the way the tremolo emerges around 30 seconds into “Chase the Grain”, for instance. It’s so soft that you feel its effect on the song as a whole long before your brain consciously recognizes it.

Norwegian Nights

But I suppose I don’t really care about the finer musical details of Roads to the North, and that is why I found this album so difficult to review. This music is only a gateway. Like an engaging book, you never notice that it is well written. Roads to the North is not the guided tour we found on Kentucky. It leaves us be to explore where the feelings take us within the context of the world Lunn has already shown us. Those paths can be rocky. It’s not the glorified past of so many European pagan metallers. The should-be eternal is tainted. The land is marred. It’s the introspective melancholy Americana of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and your heart goes out to so many things that you can never hope to save.

Lie beneath a cold blanket and watch the mountains sleep. The train rolls by every hour, as I wake and dream. The woods and the hills–faces so dear to me. Frozen lakes, flatland snow, where I’m called I’ll go. Such still quiet, then the whistle echoes. My fragile sleep torn from me, as many other things will be.

Song of the Day: Ain’t No Grave (by Johnny Cash)


The latest “Song of the Day” comes courtesy of the “Man in Black” himself. It’s the main track from his final posthumous-released album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave.

“Ain’t No Grave” gives us Cash in his final days as he continued to make music despite knowing that Death was coming for him and his time was almost up. We can hear the Cash’s voice gravelly as usual but also shows the failing health he was in. Yet, despite that he still gives the Old Testament-like lyrics of “Ain’t No Grave” the gravity and strength of someone who has seen all that life had to offer (both good and bad) and experienced them all.

The minimalist music backing up Cash’s voice as piano, organ and banjo played on the fly gives the song an almost doomsday tone as he sings about death, angels and the Second Coming. Yet, there’s a sense of hope to the lyrics themselves as Cash points out that not even the grave can keep him from reaching the promised land.

It’s final songs like “Ain’t No Grave” which continues to build the legend that is Johnny Cash. He’s gone beyond music superstar and icon to just legendary figure who seems to transcends art and life itself with every gravelly-voiced lyric sung. If there’s anyone who can look the Devil and God in their eye and tell them to stick it then it would be Johnny Cash.

Ain’t No Grave

There ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down
There ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down

When I hear that trumpet sound
I’m gonna rise right out of the ground
Ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down

Well, look way down the river
And what do you think I see
I see a band of angels
And they’re coming after me

Ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down
There ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down

Well, look down yonder, Gabriel
Put your feet on the land and sea
But Gabriel, don’t you blow your trumpet
Until you hear from me

There ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down
Ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down

Well meet me, Jesus, meet me
Meet me in the middle of the air
And if these wings don’t fail me,
I will meet you anywhere

Ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down
There ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down

Well meet me, Mother and Father,
Meet me down the river road
And Mama, you know that I’ll be there
When I check in my load

Ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down
There ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down
There ain’t no grave
Can hold my body down