Hi, Hassle readers! Been a minute! As the stresses and terrors of 2016 piled up around me, I found myself moving from twice-weekly reviews and copy editing sessions to weekly reviews to bi-weekly ones and, eventually, nada for several months. Life gets in the way sometimes, especially life in… well, I don’t wanna say “era of apocalyptic decline”, but anyway… when Dan reached out to me about contributing something for the end of the year, it seemed like as good a time as any to pop back in and say hello!
It’s hard to write about this year without mentioning the death and destruction, the post-truth and the fake news, the unchecked rise of racist nationalism in every corner of the globe. Shit’s ugly, fam, and I don’t believe any trite garbage about love or hope or tolerance being the answer. Get ready to fight for your lives. Learn new skills, network, collectivize, and become as self-sufficient as possible. But there I go again, spinning off into this “era of apocalyptic decline” talk. Many others are already speaking to that far more eloquently than I ever will.
So, how about the upsides? There was some fine pop culture this year, and as a voracious culture vulture it’s my duty to contribute my voice to its discussion. As usual, I’m forgoing the list format for something a little more free-form. Heck, I’m not even abiding by the “released in 2016” rule. Deal with it.
Potentially my favorite artifact of 2016 came right around New Year’s. The VVitch was a movie tailor-made for my interests, including all things occult, the atmospheric horror of 1960s Hammer films, the superstitions and legends of early New England, and the Dark Romanticism of writers born in the area, such as Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In all seriousness, if all you know of Hawthorne are high school English slogs like The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables, but you like stories that draw on the mystery and terror of old New England in the way The VVitch does, pick up his short stories. They won’t disappoint you.
Speaking of recommended literature on the subjects of mystery and terror, Penguin Classics re-released the first two short story collections by Thomas Ligotti in a single collection back in late 2015. Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is a masterclass in Lovecraftian horror, but while HPL’s cosmic outlook posited a cruelly indifferent universe, Ligotti’s universe is actively, purposefully malevolent. Consciousness is not so much an accident or a joke as it is a punishment. The vaguely aquatic preoccupations Lovecraft displayed in the slimy monstrosities of his Mythos are replaced by a repeating obsession with dolls, mannequins, puppets, and other “unreal” representations of human beings. This is not light reading by any stretch, but it’s also exquisitely written. The best fiction I got around to this year, by far.
In my beloved Marvel universe, Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates has offered up a revelatory take on The Black Panther, in which the concept of what it means to be a responsible king of the successful, wealthy, and scientifically advanced African nation of Wakanda is juxtaposed beautifully with strong critiques of the very concepts of monarchy and patriarchal hereditary tradition.
Civil War II was a perfunctory “event comic”, with prosecution for future crimes based on pre-cognition standing in for the original Civil War’s Registration Act, and the deaths of James Rhodes and Bruce Banner standing in for the original’s much more publicized death of Steve Rogers.
I haven’t yet picked up the trades of this year’s best-reviewed Marvel title, The Vision, but the android domestic drama has been favorably compared to everything from David Lynch to Shakespeare. It’s next on my list, and it should probably be on yours, too.
Meanwhile in the MCU, we finally have a proper Spider-Man thanks to Tom Holland, who stole the show in Captain America 3, and Dr. Strange offered up the best use of cinema 3D since Avatar.
In non-fiction, Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus offered an essential breakdown on the ways in which digital technology has been misused to embolden and strenghten the worst aspects of industrial capitalism, while pointing the way towards less growth-driven, more equitable alternatives. Rushkoff’s work is always timely and insightful, and this is no exception.
Another great bit of non-fiction, the documentary Sympathy for the Devil, screened at the Harvard Film Archive this year thanks to the fine folks at Boston Underground Film Festival. The film, presented with remarks by director Neil Edwards and Lucien Greaves of the Satanic Temple, did a very entertaining job of exploring the Process Church of the Final Judgement, one of my favorite esoteric movements within the ’60s/’70s counterculture.
I saw a lot of local music this year, but the band who I made it a point to see the most frequently was Ancient Filth. Their sets of terse, provocative hardcore never once disappointed me, and the Earth Brains flexi they released this year was quite a ripper as well. Hopefully their current hiatus won’t be a very long one.
Other live standouts were a sparsely attended Great Scott gig with Video, Timmy’s Organism, and Regression 696 (basically Wolf Eyes playing under an assumed name), the Cocksparrer/American Nightmare/Agnostic Front show in Worcester, Robag Wruhme and Andrew Weatherall’s DJ sets at Make it New, partying with Thick Shakes on the beach in Wellfleet, Black Sabbath with my family at Great Woods, the Proletariat reunion show at ONCE, and any of the half dozen shows I caught this year at the Boiler Room (RIP).
In terms of new releases, I have to admit I’ve been a little behind. I started the year obsessing over 2015’s self-titled album by Tau Cross, a supergroup of Amebix, Voivod, and Misery members doing a crusty, metallic take on the Killing Joke sound which works well as a follow-up to Amebix’s Sonic Mass. It was a regular fixture in my rotation all year, along with classics by Hank Williams, Motorhead, and the Rolling Stones and podcasts like WTF, Hardcore History and The Duncan Trussell Family Hour.
Among the 2016 releases I did hear, Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds found the group at their most mournful and atmospheric, haunted by the spectre of Cave’s tragically lost son. David Bowie’s Blackstar was a monumental end to a monumental career. Liquids’ “Holt Liqs” was a perfect dose of spazzoid garage punk. Nearer the end of the year, my ear turned more towards achievements in black music, including hip-hop (“Atrocity Exhibition” by Danny Brown), soul (“A Seat At the Table” by Solange), and funk (“Awaken, My Love!” by Childish Gambino).
Speaking of Childish Gambino, I have to shout out Donald Glover for not just making a career-defining album this year, but also writing/directing/acting in the standout new television show of 2016, Atlanta. Brimming with empathy and by turns funny and unsettling, it announces the work of a true auteur. In terms of returning shows, the plot of Game of Thrones finally overtook GRRM’s novels with mixed but fairly positive results, and Bojack Horseman continues to be the gut-punch nobody expected. That show just ruins me, emotionally.
So, there you have it. The stuff I read, watched, and listened to to get myself through this unending disaster of a year. There were other upsides. I ate a lot of very good fried chicken, had some tasty cocktails, did some travelling, caught up with old friends, got a great new job… For more on that stuff, more pop culture opinions, and yes, more about our continuing era of apocalyptic decline, join me on Dissent into Madness, the new podcast I’m launching in 2017. Yeah, I’m gonna be one of those podcast people now. Deal with it.