Film

Offensive to Muslims? Give Me a Break.

Leila B. Akkara
Sex and the City 2

I didn't have much faith in something as colorful, fun and, yes, decidedly feminine as Sex and the City to begin with, and the reviews stubbed out any remaining hope I had for this movie. Not only was it purported to be bad, but it was also deemed unacceptably offensive to Muslims. How could they all be wrong?


Sex and the City 2

Director: Michael Patrick King
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Chris Noth, John Corbett, David Eigenberg, Evan Handler, Jason Lewis, Willie Garson
Rated: R
Studio: New Line Cinema
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-05-27 (General release)
UK date: 2010-05-28 (General release)
Website
Trailer

I recently sat down to watch Sex and the City 2, months after its release in theaters. It took me that long mostly because the reviews were so unanimously and stridently awful. I didn't have much faith in something as colorful, fun and, yes, decidedly feminine as Sex and the City to begin with, and the reviews, from major outlets to smaller ones, stubbed out any remaining hope I had for this movie. Not only was it purported to be bad -- very, very, bad -- but it was also deemed unacceptably offensive to Muslims. This last charge, in particular, filled me with dread. It is not that I pick films according to critics' opinions; our world is based on the normal curve and the most just means the average. However, all of the reviews I read were bad. How could they all be wrong?

Well, I think they were. Sex and the City 2 is a remarkably brave, unique, and important piece of art for the Western-Muslim relationship and, in particular, for the Muslim woman. I wholeheartedly challenge the leitmotiv in reviews proclaiming that the movie was an affront to Muslims, especially given the way Muslims have traditionally been depicted in American film and television.

To start off with, the makers of the movie showed some moxie by picking the United Arab Emirates as the setting for the girls' adventure. Our world offers a lifetime's worth of getaway destinations, but King et al zoned in on a tricky area, the Middle East. It wasn't long ago that our lawmakers decided against a business deal with the UAE involving the sale of an American port because of an irrational fear of the UAE based solely on the fact that Emiratis are Arabs, and Muslim. In Sex and the City 2, not only do the movie makers bypass this nonsense without giving it more than a sensible nod (Charlotte traveling by her maiden name of York rather than her married Jewish name of Goldenblatt), but they pick the connoisseur's UAE destination of Abu Dhabi, not Dubai. Picking an Arab and Muslim location in the Middle East is a bold move in and of itself and a welcome respite from the aura of suspicion and fear forced on the region and its citizens.

Though a slew of Hollywood movies have included the Middle East as a site within their stories, once viewers arrive at these destinations, the natives are generally depicted as a case study in orientalism (Salah from the Indiana Jones movies), or in the far more dangerous and dreaded modern archetype of the terrorist (pick any Muslim TV or film character in the past decade). Arabs and Muslims are either infantile and subservient, cunning tricksters with too wide grins, or they are building bombs. By contrast, in this movie, the natives are displayed as people: wealthy and Arab, but with some degree of variation in their portrayal. They are not all heroes (the anti-stereotype being as annoying as the stereotype), but neither are they all sinister weasels. This simple strategy of depicting people, Middle Easterners or not, as they probably are -- which is not-terrorist -- may score a much sought-after point in the hearts and minds of Muslims. Carries and company's characters refrain from judging too much, although again, a free pass is not entirely given to the culture, as Carrie observes what many of us are thinking when it comes to Middle Eastern dress: the headscarf is understandable, but the veil across the face is freaky.

Here are a couple of examples to show that Sex and the City 2, far from succumbing to the traditional stereotype reserved for Muslims in film, goes beyond the status quo. The souk vendor Carrie buys shoes from is not out to cheat her, but in fact holds on to her lost passport until she comes to get it. What? He didn't blackmail her into joining his harem? Amazing! The official that ultimately arrested Samantha for having sex on the beach? A well spoken Muslim guy who does his job, which, gasp, does not include torturing people! Unbelievable!

I can only imagine the sigh of relief, perhaps hidden or muted, that moderate or secular Muslims, particularly American ones, breathed when they saw Muslims on screen that are not terrorists, torturers, or even dumb and deceitful! The concept for Hollywood is nothing short of revolutionary. Thus I do not understand the repeated claims by professional critics that this movie is offensive to Muslims, especially given the role the Muslim has typically played in American film, and frankly, the way Muslims have been portrayed in real life by the media, by politicians, by bloggers, by your neighbors. When did an offense to Muslims even become worthy of mention?

This movie has been one of the kindest gestures to Muslims made through a mainstream medium in a very long time, and, couched in materialism and glitz, sexiness and fun, the movie has some positive repercussions in the Western-Muslim dialogue, especially at the populist level. Things being the way they are, any positivity, any advance in that dialogue should be welcomed and celebrated, not summarily sneered at.

Sex and the City 2 does not shy away from the problem of portraying Muslim women either, and the writers handle this area with grace and humanity alongside the expected whimsy. In the girls' final caper, they are ultimately saved by a silent flotilla of dark forms that are the women in too many Middle-Eastern countries. The local women usher them indoors where they can unveil, speak, and be with their Western sisters. Why hasn't anyone else thought to unveil these women that so many seek to liberate where they actually can: on film? This scene may have come across as a "duh" moment, that women around the world share a common bond, but it is an obviousness that has been obfuscated elsewhere in media, even amongst many feminists.

Aside from how this movie might help relations between (and within) Muslims and Westerners, it also might aid in the dialogue the Muslim world desperately needs to have with itself. The heroines of the movie, in their naïve arrival in the Middle-East, offer Muslims the chance to view themselves through the girls' childlike prism. As stated before, yeah, the face veil is creepy and bizarre, for anyone, not just Americans. But the most powerful scene comes towards the end. This scene was described by critics as being particularly offensive and vulgar. Samantha makes a spectacularly (of course) simple proclamation in the marketplace that causes a mob to come after her. The proclamation is a truth, one that every Muslim woman desperately needs to scream in the face of many a Muslim man: “I have sex!” Yes! Is it a coincidence that the writers constructed the scene that way, a seemingly mad person professing a truth in a Middle Eastern marketplace and being condemned for it? The reference may seem offensive to some, but an 11th century mystic in Baghdad by the name of Hallaj was hung from the gallows for professing “I am the Truth!” in a marketplace. The comparison is perhaps tenuous, but in considering the tragedy of the Muslim woman, Samantha's spectacle is a powerful testimony whose suppression in the Muslim world has led to suffering, misery, and even death for Muslim women. It may be gratuitous to you, but what does her proclamation mean for them?

Similarly, this film is the first time I have seen a gay Muslim man depicted in popular culture. This movie even found time to reach out to the Muslim gay community by giving them a presence too, a right to exist, at least onscreen. Such a portrayal could challenge Muslim sensibilities towards homosexuality and hopefully make a dent towards the acceptance of the latter within the culture. Again, this minor character in the movie is a courageous move on the part of the writers.

The movie also challenges the UAE's culture specifically. When I watched the scene where the girls arrive at their hotel in Abu Dhabi, I was convinced that the emirate or the hotel itself, had financed the movie. The liturgical description of every conceivable and ridiculous amenity the hotel provided had me thinking that the hotel's own press agent wrote the part. Come to find out later that the movie was not filmed in the UAE, and was even banned from the country. The silly, shallow movie makers clearly had an intimate knowledge of what oil-rich Middle-Eastern wealth sounds like when it boasts of a particularly ostentatious product. The whole scene was a tongue-in-cheek poke at the unbearable extravagance of oil-rich culture, which displays a wealth that makes one wonder where halal ends and haram truly begins. The writers even include, as an admittedly minor side story, the plight of the South Asian migrant come to work in the Middle-East, a social issue that, at least in those parts of the world, is sure to become far more important in the coming generation.

Though I am mystified at the chastisement Sex and the City 2 received for purportedly insulting Muslims, I feel the need to address at least a few of the specific points raised in support of the charge. Some critics complained that the Muslims in the movie were one-dimensional props, but the movie wasn't about them, it was about the girls. Further, does a serious movie like Syriana really allot more depth to its Muslim characters? Other critics, pointing to the Bedouin chic aesthetic and magic carpet references have maintained that the movie was a shameless orientalist extravaganza. Though magic carpets and turbans are strong symbols of an orientalist vision, they are a) harmless compared to other orientalist currents which are absent in this movie, and b) actual cultural artifacts. An association with flying carpets is whimsical; an association with rabid, suicidal fanatics or a shared, monolithic mind is deleterious.

Finally, Sex and the City 2 has been accused of the crime of not taking the opportunity to educate the public on what Muslims are really like. Well, one will probably never get an idea of what Muslims are really like because there are over one billion of them. The movie does educate the public in the following two ways: its depiction of the UAE (a country which has its own specific culture and cannot represent the entire Middle-East) is pretty factually correct, and Muslims do not generally spend all their time hating American freedom or killing innocent people.

The movie, for me, was a real tour de force at a time when pasting a turbaned head on a dog's picture can earn you a death threat. Maybe it was completely unselfconscious on the movie makers' part, but the elements I took from watching the film left me with the impression that the movie writers played the wise fools in minefield territory. Dealing with Muslim culture in our times is not easy. By nonchalantly riding the female Fabulous Express, the superficial bimbo of this year's movies could glide through to the hearts and minds of at least some, while posing as mere brain candy.

Each instance of a Muslim without a bomb is an opportunity to delete the association that has bombarded the public: Muslims and indiscriminate murder. The image of the Muslim as terrorist has been repeated so often that it has shouted down any possible chance for the latter to be viewed otherwise, and I am certain it has unfairly caused tangible, real-world difficulties for your average (Muslim) Joe, or Moe. Thus, any movie these days that includes Islam sans terrorism is a compassionate one.

The virulence of the reviews, I suspect, generated its own momentum, and this may have prevented any reviewers from assessing the film objectively. I urge critics to watch the film again, perhaps as a comparative study of films depicting Muslims. The unanimity of critics' opinions could indicate the movie is really just bad, but that stands in contrast to the box office numbers. There are many ways to defend Muslims against offense, and I will refrain from stating the obvious ones. Trashing this movie, in my opinion, is not one of them.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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