Blog Critics

The holidays, despite being holidays, have been very busy. When I realized Christmas and New Years both landed on Tuesdays, the thought occurred to give myself a week off. Well, this is that week. Clearly I’m only posting something now because I value consistency. As I’ve done in the past, I’m copping out this week and instead posting a couple of my recent reviews.

MUSIC REVIEW: SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE – ASCENT

Article first published as Music Review: Six Organs of Admittance – Ascent on Blogcritics.

"Ascent" by Six OrgansDrag City released a new installment from psychedelic folk pioneer Ben Chasney on August 21, 2012, entitled Ascent. He has been recording under the moniker Six Organs of Admittance for over a decade now, and this time out, offers up typical mysticism wrapped in a package of space travel and cosmic resonance.

More band-oriented than any of his previous works, the influence of working with groups like Comets on Fire and Rangda is felt substantially here. While I appreciate the evolution of Chasney’s style over the last decade and a half, I find myself missing the quiet, droning, meditative acoustic work that was the hallmark of the outfit for the first half of its existence. Ascent is more like a rock album than the previous dozen albums. But fans are mightily used to experimentation when it comes to Six Organs, and should be pleased with this record.

The band, a slightly reorganized Comets on Fire, does play well together, and the opener, “Waswasa”, is a dynamic, riff-based jam that evokes the familiar noise and chaos of Chasney’s electrified solos. Recorded live from the floor in Louder Studios by Tim Green, the LP sounds fantastic and the players mesh beautifully. Simultaneously clean and dirty, loud and subtle, Six Organs and Green have stepped their game up from The Sun Awakens (Drag City). And “Waswasa” has the perfect psychedelic drive to set the stage for a real Ascent.

Second track “Close to the Sky” has a nice mellow feel reminiscent of “Blue Sunday” from The Doors, but after five minutes the cyclical bass groove begins to wear. Chasney seems to be comfortable in a band setting these days; the drums, bass, and rhythm guitars fill the frequencies while his solos arc overhead. Earlier recordings highlighted Chasney’s acoustic folk-raga style, and fans of old-school Six Organs might find some of these tracks a bit diluted. Chasney relies on his bandmates a bit too heavily and some tracks lack the direction of earlier Six Organs.

The best example of this is “One Thousand Birds”, a re-imagined oldie from the Six Organs classic Dark Noontide (on Holy Mountain Records). The original has nothing but clattering percussion and one gloriously stringy acoustic guitar until an electric squall discharges and takes it to the next level. Ascent‘s version spreads the parts between more people without adding to the complexity and impulse of the song. And Chasney’s iconic voice, usually used like such an integral instrument, falsettos on top of the music and doesn’t sell the message like the original.

Fans of the droning profundity Six Organs uses to warp us through the interior maze will be happy with “They Called You Near”. It’s a deep, murmuring, dark space that drips down the brain stem with layers of guitar and noise supporting Chasney’s chant-like vocals. The acoustic coda is beautifully clean (both recording and performance) and melds with the slow Side A closer, “Solar Ascent”.

Side B is a four-song mix of familiar styles starting with the aforementioned “One Thousand Birds”. The dreamy, lilting “Your Ghost” gives way to a rocking entreaty to burn memories (“Even If You Knew”) that makes it past the seven-minute mark without getting old. And the finale, “Visions (From Io)” is a gorgeous slow jam that blends science fiction and magic to send us out into the world in a cloud of oneiric bliss.

The packaging of the LP is one of the slickest in the Six Organs collection. The cover hints at the sci-fi narrative Chasney has in mind for this record, while the back cover is a forthright magical symbol. This dichotomy works for the record and the themes can be seen across Chasney’s career.

Six Organs has always been about Ascent, both inner and outer. The simple liner notes (including lyrics) are printed on a lovely dot matrix one sheet. Though I haven’t heard the digital version, I’m betting fans will be happy purchasing the vinyl version, which is a great value for less than $20. Not the best Six Organs record, it’s still light years beyond most contemporary music.

 

BLU-RAY REVIEW: BLUE VELVET

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Blue Velvet on Blogcritics.

Blue VelvetIn 1986 David Lynch created his most concise and iconic film, Blue Velvet. A modern noir and a pervert’s detective story, it offers the most succinct iterations of the themes that have spanned his career. His first film with the coveted “final cut” clause (under De Laurentiis Entertainment Group), Blue Velvet is distilled Lynch – a textural ride into our subconscious where dark desires hide from the light of day. “It’s a strange world,” is the perfect mantra for this psychosexual masterpiece.

Blue Velvet is one of David Lynch’s most accessible films for those new to his work. Perhaps more balanced and commercial than any of his other movies, the film offers a striking blend of high school innocence and psychotic despair (embodied by the two female leads). The seeds planted by Blue Velvet blossomed into the cult television hit Twin Peaks by Lynch and Mark Frost, and both projects continue to influence popular culture from American Beauty to AMC’s The Killing. Other projects from Lynch feel much darker and esoteric. While I can watch Lynch’s films just about any time, I can confidently say that Lost Highway is not the best movie for a first date.

It’s obvious that mystery is what turns Lynch’s crank, and protagonist Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is the perfect surrogate for the auteur. Jeffery is an amazing blend of gee-whiz Hardy Boy and torrid voyeur. Mild-mannered, geeky, and friendless in his hometown, he is drawn irresistibly into the deep river of mystery just below the surface of his familiar world. It’s his compulsion toward the unknown that drives Jeffery. Lynch uses him as a key to our restrained impulses; we find ourselves drawn into the act of observation, afraid of how deep and dark our own desires go.

Dennis Hopper creates one of the most terrible villains in film history whose erratic and drug-induced violence shows us just how dark things can get. Frank’s twisted sexual behavior leaves us feeling gutted, but his emotional vulnerability to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” adds such a specific and bizarre dimension to his evil that we’re drawn into his mania even as we fear it. When Frank commandeers Jeffery for a wicked joyride, he leers at Jeffery in the back seat, and at us through Jeffery’s POV, and says, “You’re like me.” It’s chilling because we recognize Jeffery’s perversion as a faint reflection of Frank’s, as well as our own desire to look into the darkness of Blue Velvet.

Familiar themes of light and dark, love and fear, order and chaos, are set in motion in the first scene of the picture. Fifties-era white-picket fences and manicured lawns give way to a dizzying horror of bugs crawling and scratching the dirt. The iconic severed ear is a perfect symbol for Lynch’s work, acknowledging the senses before diving through perception to Something Else. And it’s his unique ability to show us that Something Else that distinguishes Lynch as one of the most important artists in the medium.

The 1080p video looks amazing. The digital transfer was supervised by David Lynch, as was the previous Special Edition DVD, which looked pretty good. But the Blu-ray edition blows the doors off the DVD. It’s unclear whether the bump in quality is from the resolution alone, or if they’ve carefully recolored and timed the whole movie, but the HD version captures much more of the original film look with beautiful fidelity. The dark scenes have depth and the colours are resplendent. I detected only a slight trace of noise in a few shots.

What impressed me even more than the picture was the sound. From the start of his career, Lynch has understood that video and sound are two equally important halves of filmmaking. One reason his films are so absorbing is because of his emphatic attention to sound design. From Eraserhead to Inland Empire, Lynch’s meticulous sound work builds the environment around the characters, forming a fuller sensory world than traditional filmmakers. Layering room tones, distant machinery, wind, humming lights, and musical score, he fleshes out the mood of each moment, bringing us more in touch with the psychology of the character.

One of the disappointing things about the old DVD version was the sound. Obviously a lot of time had been spent trying to manicure the soundtrack, but I believe the digital technology just wasn’t capable of delivering a satisfying product at the time. Background noise in the dialogue wasn’t blended properly with the ambience of the scenes, and so the dialogue seemed haloed with a subtle hiss. This may simply have been the result of bad compression. But the Blu-ray edition has fixed this impressively.

I marveled throughout the movie at how clearly I could make out subtleties in the quiet moments. Particularly with the sultry voice of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), the dynamic range of the soundtrack really shows off the depth of the original recordings. As both a cinephile and an audiophile, I can’t stress enough how important the sound is to the movie-watching experience, and I think this fact alone is reason enough to buy the Blu-ray edition. Even if you’ve only recently bought the DVD version, as I have, it’s well worth it (until the next jump in technology takes place later this afternoon).

The Blu-ray edition offers great special features as well. Over fifty minutes of deleted scenes have been found and beautifully restored in HD for fans who can’t get enough. Previously seen as only a “Deleted Scene Montage” of stills on the DVD, fans will enjoy Frances Bay’s comic timing, a hilarious jazz stand-up routine, and a gorgeous, electric scene with Jeffery and Dorothy on the roof of her apartment. A smattering of outtakes and vignettes only leaves us wanting more, but the “Mysteries of Love” documentary (previously on the DVD) bulks up the package.

Twenty-six years after its original release, Blue Velvet is still as fresh, shocking, and cool as ever. This Blu-ray release is as satisfying as I could have hoped. Not only are the video and sound leagues better than any previous version since the actual celluloid, but the restored deleted scenes make this the definitive version to own.

P.S. For a more plot-oriented review of this product, El Bicho has written a good one.