Comics

A Modern Promethea: Mike Carey and Peter Gross Pen the Unwritten

Story these days is a battlefield, and Mike Carey and Peter Gross are the new generals.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…[John] did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, "I am not the Christ."

-- Book of John 1:14, 20 (NIV)

"Stop telling God what to do with his dice".

-- Niels Bohr

It is obvious to anyone who has ever read an issue of Doctor Strange or Ghost Rider that magic has a long, storied history in the realm of comics. Truthfully, it goes much deeper than that, as many creators themselves, including Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, are, in point of fact, practicing magicians.

When Morrison was writing his seminal treatise on magic, The Invisibles, he quickly came to realize that whatever he wrote for the character of King Mob -- a facial wound, perhaps, or a specific event or illness -- would manifest itself in the very real world of his life. Upon realizing that it was his own doing, that the hyper-sigil he was writing was slowly killing him, Morrison decided to begin treating King Mob differently. The character would have nothing but fantastic luck, terrific sex and great fortune, and bad things would only happen to him when necessary. Morrison now recalls the days following his decision to change the course of King Mob’s destiny as some of the best of his own life.

Similarly, Moore, whose career (Promethea,The Courtyard) has shared a long history with his well-documented practice of magic, claims, on a variety of occasions, to have seen his own creation, John Constantine (who first appeared during his run on Saga of the Swamp Thing before spinning off into his own series) in the waking world, and even once to have spoken with him about the very nature of magic, being told by his own creation that "any [expletive deleted] can do it".

This very concept -- the notion of a sort of pantheistic solipsism, wherein a writer or other powerful creator brings his or her world to live either in our own or in a parallel reality -- serves as the most basic interpretation of The Unwritten, the new Vertigo series by Mike Carey and Peter Gross.

The story, clearly inspired by the famous Harry Potter series (which was itself inspired by Books of Magic, to which Gross contributed for some time), follows Tom Taylor, son of famous and mysteriously reclusive novelist, Wilson Taylor. The younger Taylor, identified by the public as the germ for his father's most successful character (the boy wizard Tommy Taylor) now haunts fantasy conventions as a down-on-his-luck pseudo-celebrity. Much like Christopher Robin Milne and Dennis Ketcham before him (as noted by Carey and Gross in various interviews and promotional materials), Tom has grown to resent his father on some level, as he has never had a private life of his own.

Very early on in the series, Tom Taylor's true identity is called into question. Is he truly the genetic offspring of Wilson Taylor or the child of a Hungarian couple who, for whatever reason, feel a need to reclaim him in his adulthood? Is he trying to milk his pseudo-celebrity for whatever it's worth, or is there another reason why he occupies the spotlight of fan conventions and the media? Is Tom Taylor actually the fictional Tommy Taylor, a series of books and words made flesh, or is he a false prophet? Is he a Messianic savior or a brutal murderer?

The first nine issues of the series represent the finest, most literate storytelling the comics medium has seen since Morrison, Moore and Neil Gaiman burst onto the scene. As the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur, Tom encounters Mingus, the flying cat from his father’s novels (no doubt an amalgam of Rowling’s Crookshanks and Hedwig from the Potter epic) and befriends a woman with the patently false name "Lizzie Hexam" (named after the character from the Charles Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend, brought yet again to the cultural forefront after it appeared for the first time on Lost a few years ago). Hexam (who herself may or may not also be one of Wilson's creations) rescues Tom after he is kidnapped by a deranged maniac who believes himself to be Count Ambrosio (read: Lord Voldemort), the vampire arch-nemesis in Wilson’s books. The literate quality of comicbooks crescendo as Tom even has a conversation on the very nature of reality with Victor Frankenstein's flesh golem in the middle of a French jail.

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Unwritten, as well as an important part of the creators' mission statement, is Tom’s encyclopedic knowledge of literature and literary geography. These being forced upon him by his father at a young age on the claim that it was important for him to know. The concept of the father forcing his own legacy onto his offspring is certainly not a new one, but is most assuredly a very common one in popular entertainment these days, especially in works emerging, in some fashion, from or directly out of the George W. Bush administration.

One need look no further than the aforementioned Lost and the father issues that shaped the lives of large portions of the cast, pattern continues in shows like Supernatural and Fringe, where obsessive fathers repeatedly put their own sons in danger and then will do anything in their power to save them when they're at death's door. In recent issues of The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner has begun mentoring his half-alien son in the way that only the world’s most brilliant and terrifying mind could conceive. Similarly, the conclusion of the "Fear the Hunters" storyarc in Robert Kirkman’s remarkable Walking Dead shows the great lengths that Rick Grimes has, consciously or not, taught his son Carl to go to for the good of the many. Jonathan Hickman’s Pax Romana brilliantly uses a future Pope in place of an actual parent, but it’s no surprise when his story introduces a scientifically 'better' Pope known in-story as "the Gene Pope".

Of course, this is but a small sampling of the works that have approached this theme over the last decade, but like everything else, The Unwritten refuses to do anything by the oldest or even the newest traditions. The still-unfolding mystery of Wilson Taylor has uncovered layers likely to drive any David Lynch fan mad with uncertainty. And to top it all off, the conspiracy element of the series -- which, once again going against the grain, is not a smoky, shadowy X-Files-y room filled with, yes, fathers, but rather an intangible, centuries old threat -- reaches back as far as anyone could even try to imagine, where it unraveled and eventually destroyed the lives of Wilson Taylor's (and, by extension, Carey’s and Gross’s) literary father Rudyard Kipling.

Using the old trope of the distant father and son and the seeds of discord such an unhealthy relationship can sow, Carey and Gross pave the way towards their true goal in the recently-wrapped storyline “Inside Man”. In this arc, Wilson Taylor's use of a horn in his novels -- a horn that, when played, sings the song that ends the current age of man -- is crystallized when Tom realizes he is imprisoned in a penitentiary built over the location of the famous poem "The Song of Roland". In essence, Carey and Gross are blowing a horn meant to usher in a new age of storytelling, one requiring original thinking and new ideas, and they are subverting old storytelling concepts and clichés in order to do so. And as with the blowing of any horn on any battlefield throughout history, it is a clarion call to arms that cannot, shall not, will not be ignored by those who serve at the command of Story.

As a famous film star of decades past would say, "You know how to usher in a new age, right? Just put your lips together and blow".

And if it works, if their call is heard and Story changes, it will in turn change reality. There is no better definition of magic, and it is hard to think Morrison and Moore would disagree.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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