Where Our Rough Roads Lead: Reading Howard Mackie's "Ravagers"

It's shortly before dawn on Memorial Day and I'm thinking about Lt. Colonel Virgil Ivan Grissom and Apollo One. Could it be because of Howard Mackie's beautiful Ravagers #1?

Before I even get to the bricks and mortar of this feature, there's a couple of things I want to say up front. One is that Howard Mackie definitely got through to me, with Ravagers #1. Which is to say he found a deep inner place and he's reached out from there, and that act of reaching out from that place struck a chord more deeply within me than most other first issues, or even original high concepts for comicbook series, in a good long while.

Another thing to be said is that effect of Howard's writing is an emotional one. If there's synchronicity to be found, and there is, it's going to be a meaningful, vital connectivity of an emotional sort. There's an inner connectedness being excavated here. This is the act of me reading Ravagers, I'm deeply involved here. But also, it's not simply some checkerboard of random data stores being replayed. I'm deeply involved in Howard's Ravagers. Already there's the imprint of an expert hand Lachesizing the warp and weft on the story's loom. There are connections to be teased out here, to be dug out, to be brought back into the light and they're emotional ones that happen at the the shores of the great oceans of meaning that separate individuals. In this case it's Howard and me, but the moment you pick up a copy of Ravagers, those distant, familiar shores will be your own.

So here I am at the Airport Terminal Hour. Well into the night, blanketed by the dark, but not quite near enough yet to begin to imagine the dawn. And by some strange turn, at a moment in the issue when Howard channels both Frankenstein and John Donne and has his Ravagers stand on an ice-floe and cut themselves off from the mainland, I find myself thinking of Gus Grissom. Commander Grissom, at long last. Commander Grissom after being passed over more than once. Grissom was the commander of the forever-tragedy that was Apollo One. He was also the only member of the Mercury Seven to transition into becoming one of the New Nine. The memorial plaque bolted permanently into the launchpad where the three astronauts burned with the orbiter just a few short hours before mission-go, is emblazoned with a singular phrase. Ad astra, per aspera; the stars, by a rough road.

It's a moment of almost pure momentum, one that defines the vector of the book and the scope of the team that isn't quite yet a team. And it's a moment that resonates deeply with previously built-up mythologies. I suppose the buzzword for this, if you find yourself lost in supermarket with the Clash or trapped in an Ivy League English Lit seminar, would be "intertextuality". But intertextuality is just a buzzword. What it points at, is a world where you can recognize hidden things in texts. And those hidden things are hidden within yourself. They are your meanings and experiences and interpretations of other texts, literary or otherwise, that you bring to the text, and that will allow you to find those cathartic moments.

Was this Ang Lee's memory? I remember an interview with (possibly) Ang Lee reminiscing his days at NYU Film School. Wes Craven had been invited to address the class, and mentioned something about the original Nightmare on Elm Street. The scene with the blood spatter was actually the most costly Special FX. It had required something the order of a team of a half-dozen experts, working variously on synthetic blood and on melding this with actual pig's blood. And surprisingly, the most effective FX, the most jump-out-of-your-seat moment was when a ten-dollar fake tongue projected from a telephone's mouthpiece. Ang Lee's takeaway from this (was it Ang Lee?; the interview I remember clearly, appears in the Stephen Lowenstein edited My First Film, but I can only really remember reading the Lee interview from that collection) was that you never can tell what will "work" and won't.

When Howard invokes intertextuality, he invokes it in this hugely practical sense of it. Like something made by the work of hands. This is not some erudite, rarefied thing, abstracted to a point that would require years of training to before it can be operated. No. Howard's is a practical, immediate, intuitive micro-catharsis-machine. One which allows you to make the obvious connections (obvious to yourself, obvious to more people than yourself as well). So standing on an ice-floe is definitely evocative of Frankenstein. That's how Shelley's novel ends, with the once-promising being old and used up, and being left abandoned on an ice-floe, while monsters are freed to roam the world.

Frankenstein's ending is a particularly poignant connection. Frankenstein himself, even being used up, being disheveled by the act of having lived in such a way as to exhaust his potential, and exhaust his potential in such a way that was of no benefit to either himself or his species, still feels he's getting the better end of the deal. Because the alternative is to be that undying monster, to be that unrelenting thing that stalks the land in pursuit of justice that cannot be named. Adam, Frankenstein's monster, is nothing if not a terrible child of the marriage of messianism and revenge. And this certainly rings true for Howard's Ravagers.

They've lived through hell. Almost literally through hell. They were metahumans kidnapped by a mysterious organization called N.O.W.H.E.R.E. They were thrown into an almost infinite, cavernous somewhere, fire-lit and lava-lit. And they were pitted against each other with surprising regularity. And now the Ravagers have come out of this slaughter, but not yet come through it. The scars are deep and will not heal. And America, the idea of America, the promise of a place where everyone there comes from somewhere worse, is still an impossible thing, rather than merely a distant thing.

Understanding the connection between Ravagers and Frankenstein comes easy. These kids come from slaughter (although maybe not just yet come through slaughter), are themselves caught in the impossible dilemma of needing to effect both a messianism and a revenge. A revenge on their past, on their own victimhood, on their destiny as laid out by the violent-dog-fight-nature of their former captivity. And yet their path to reinterpret that revenge as a messianic act seems equally open to them. To make of that revenge something alike the act of building a better tomorrow. There's work to be done here, and that work is clearly as much on themselves as it is on the world around them.

In the same way, John Donne's refrain of "no man is an island" is both immediate and visceral. We see Fairchild manipulate Lightning's powers to cut them off from the mainland, to cast them adrift on their own ice floe. This is Viktor von Frankenstein's choice. To reenter the natural cycle of living and dying. To at least have a death, if he cannot have had a life. Artist Ian Churchill's beautiful visual rendering of this scene, his choice of viewing angle, his keen selection of focal points, offers us both Donne and Shelley in a single moment. That's the real danger for these kids. That they assume that their lives might being meaningless not with out the violence and the horror that came to define them. That they might choose the proverbial death of self-exclusion. That that might be infinitely preferable to needing to become the monstrous child of messianism and revenge.

So I can understand finding Frankenstein, and finding Donne. And because of the night, when I think about that a little longer, I can understanding finding just a slither of Alice Cooper, of "School's Out" rather than "Feed My Frankenstein" or "Poison" or "Love Is Like a Loaded Gun", and maybe, a little of Lord of the Flies, that part that Stephen King confessed to, in his Hearts in Atlantis, being most scared by. The part at the end of the novel when the battlecruiser comes and King wonders, who will save society from the boys. It's later now, but not light yet. And I can understand finding all those things. But I'll say this about how Ravagers simply defeats me, and in defeating me elevates me, and will elevate you too if you allow it to.

It's by this and by this alone. I could not have imagined sensing that deep connection between the end of Frankenstein and Donne before having spent this time with Ravagers, before having caught those signal flares from the distant shore that is Howard's mind. If Ravagers has given me anything at all, it has given me this. This idea of a useful intertextuality. Of a thing that can be built from, and can be built on. In retrospect, even this connection between Donne and the End of Frankenstein can be found, can be explicated, can be known. But the true gift here is Gus Grissom. Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan Grissom who dreamed of advancement, crossed a generational boundary, and gave his life, as the plaque immortalizing him reminds us all, "so that others may reach the stars."

Is it simply because it's Memorial Day Weekend, and because I Don't Like Mondays of any week, that I'm thinking about the life of a man I clearly define as a hero? What about that scene on that ice floe, what about Frankenstein and Donne, and Alice Cooper and William Golding connects in my mind with Gus Grissom? Is it the idea that after that life-taking fire we could see the stars that much more clearly? Is it because Gus Grissom is An Idea that reminds us that the human journey was always to stand on one world, and look to the next?

That's the inexplicable, that's the defeat of me. Or at least of the subroutine of me, that completely understands the world and my connection to it. So it's something new. And it's something wondrous. And it's me at the birth of something--another me who can begin to see the stars again, who can imagine the dawn that will usher in Memorial Day. And for that (because that will be your experience too), Howard's Ravagers is worth all the two bucks 99's in the world.

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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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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