People Are Sickening: The Bug’s Eye View of Pandemic Games

J. M. Miller
Plague Inc. (2012)

Pandemic sims like Plague, Inc. create a marvelous kind of satire with ecological undertones.

Plague Inc.

Genres: Sims
Developer: Ndemic Creations
Release Date: 2012-12-20

A new kind of mobile gaming has players worried about the flu. It’s not that gamers are worried about catching the flu—though maybe they should be, what with the rise of gaming on smartphones that have a tendency to move rapidly from bathroom floors to pockets to countertops. Nor are players concerned about preventing the spread of the infection. Rather, they are worried about the flu the way a mother worries about her child, or the way we all worry about our own lives: will the flu survive? Will it succeed? Will it propagate, will it spread across the world? If it does, will it be happy?

It’s a strange way to think about an entity that might not, in the strictest sense, be considered alive. It’s stranger still when applied to the flu and other pathogens, viral, fungal, or bacterial, things that thrive only by multiplying human suffering. But it’s precisely this mindset that emerges from playing Plague, Inc., a title that has remained in the top five strategy games—and top 50 games overall—on the iTunes app store since Ndemic Creations released the title this past spring. Plague, Inc. joins a small cluster of other experiments in what appears to be an emerging pandemic simulation genre. These titles ask players to take on the role of infectious diseases, evolving from a single starting point to tackle the task of spreading across the globe. The ultimate goal is a nothing less than the destruction of humanity itself.

If there seems to be something sick about games that embrace human extinction, that may be part of the point. After all, equating victory with human extinction is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the motivations of many of the most popular video games of all time. The typical shoot-‘em-up, for example, has players gun down hundreds, even thousands of people as they advance from the title screen to the credits. Plague, Inc. takes the murderous motivation underlying so many popular games and pushes it to its logical conclusion. It encourages players to dream big, and stop at nothing short of the extirpation of the species they seem to enjoy injuring so much. Therein lies the brilliance, and also the most significant shortcoming, of this new gaggle of games, all of which employ the intricacies of the 21st century gaming interface in ways that draw attention to the strange social and political contours of contemporary gaming.

While the interface of Plague, Inc. resembles the (years older) Pandemic series to such an extent that some reviewers and fans are crying foul, it is Plague, Inc. that has already emerged as the apotheosis—at least for the time being—of this new variety of gaming, sometimes referred to as the pandemic simulator.

In the pandemic simulator, you don’t play as anyone. There’s no story about who you are, or why you might be attempting to destroy humanity. There’s no team of rogue scientists, no addle-minded anarchist revolution underway. The typical “skins” laid over gameplay in order to render it sensible—characters, narrative, motives, meaning—are kept to a minimum. You don’t even have an avatar representing yourself or the disease you are responsible for. This stripped-down approach to gameplay extends to the graphic interface. The entire game takes place on a rudimentary Mercator map of the globe, where you select your country of origin and watch the days tick by. Tiny boats stream from seaports to their docking places in other countries, and tiny airplanes emerge in wave upon wave, shooting across continents. The player mostly watches, accumulating points at certain milestones in the progression of the infection, and cashing in those points through menu screens that allow the player to mutate the pathogen at will, exercising some control over the symptoms and vectors of infection.

The particular style of observation demanded by the game requires that you think of the world from radically new perspectives. It pushes players to consider human movements and demographics on a near epic scale, as its global map implies. This image evokes something like that “overview effect” said to be experienced by astronauts viewing Earth from space, suggesting a kind of sublime indifference to events the average person would invest with intense emotional and psychological salience. At the same time, as you find yourself watching and waiting, wondering how long to remain patient before going lethal— calculating which symptoms will arouse the least suspicion among health organizations—humanity in the aggregate stops looking human at all. The boats wiggling their way from port to port, dribbling red blots of infection as they move, begin to resemble dozens of tiny dinoflagellates working their way through the water. Intercontinental airplanes launch with the speed and precision of Pilobolus spores. These, the only visible markers of human habitation in the game, take on all the slow fascination of microscopic observation, and mankind becomes the interesting, if insignificant, object of inquiry. The round rim of the map feels recognizable, uncanny: the world is your Petri dish.

It’s a beautiful inversion of the customary conventions of graphics-heavy game design, which privileges visuals based on the human sensory experience. It also perfectly fits the pathological perspective it asks gamers to adopt. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and to a pathogen, everything looks like a Petri dish. This clever and dizzying experiment in proportion undermines our typical approach to ourselves and to the globe, and it does so in a way that seems uniquely suited to the mobile gaming format. What a game like Plague, Inc. drives home is an aspect of strategy games we rarely consider. Since video gaming went mainstream in the ‘80s, the titles that have attracted the most attention from watchdog groups have been those that depict violence and desensitize viewers to it. Titles like Doom, Mortal Kombat, and Grand Theft Auto seem to be structured around sinister principles, encouraging gamers to engage in violent acts to get what they want, disregarding the sanctity of human life in the process. But when Plague, Inc. and other pandemic sims drive home the inhumane horror of gaming, the forms of play they implicate are not those games whose violence is decried by parents’ associations everywhere. Instead, they implicate the most innocuous games of all: strategy and simulation games.

Pandemic sims draw attention to the fact that the puzzles that structure strategy games may appear innocuous and intellectual, but in fact they are characterized by a total lack of perspective. They work by inciting people to engage in endless rounds of asocial, problem-solving logic that exists apart from any kind of human connection. Outside of gaming, no medium could come close to such amoral objectivity. No novel can even approach the world from such an angle; language itself is too human and too value-laden, the positions of the reader and writer too impregnated with the relationship of a listener to some socially significant speech. Sculpture, photography, and painting likewise exist within certain coded spaces, addressing their audience in contexts that point to themselves as artworks, authored objects with special interpersonal significance.

The modern video game is different. It lies outside the binding cultural relationships implied by the library or the museum. It can be played anywhere, and its developers rarely receive a name, much less a face. Beginning a game, one faces a set of rules, parameters, and problems, rather than a mediated relationship to a known artist, or a document of someone’s personal expression. At least violent games offer some vision of humanity, however self-interested or bleak. Plague, Inc. points up the fact that most strategy games are as free of personal perspective as any pandemic sim: there is no rhyme or reason behind Tetris, or even behind the computational logic of a round of Sudoku. Problem solving is a remarkably impersonal task, and pandemic sims like Plague, Inc. highlight the inherent impersonality of logical processes, using it to radically reorient the game player. Suddenly, we become aware that the interface that makes any strategy game accessible is deeply revealing precisely because of its arbitrary nature. It's just as fun, and just as meaningful, to strategize about the expansion of a civilization in a Sid Meier game as it is to eliminate all human life in a pandemic sim. Intelligence is disturbingly antisocial.

Engineering this insight into a game designed to be played on-the-go—one of Plague, Inc.’s departures from the Pandemic series, which existed only in Flash format on a web portal until very recently—is especially insidious. In a world of global connectivity, cell phones and the social networks they create are often critiqued for their worryingly impersonal nature. Critics like Jaron Lanier have argued that the human hive mind enabled by total mobile connectivity is dangerously dehumanizing, as it encourages a mob-like mentality that undermines the unique value of the individual voice. To market an inhuman and inhumane game by means of the very platform accused of promoting inhumanity—to design a virus simulator that could go viral—functions as a fine metacommentary on our current cultural situation.

Still, with a few exceptions—including one game-winning message that alerts you that the few remaining people lie “dying in holes”, aware that they are witnessing the end of humankind—Plague, Inc. keeps the sociopathic Schadenfreude to a minimum. It walks the fine line between objectivity and objectification with unexpected grace. In fact, its apparently dehumanizing hive mind hides a surprisingly progressive side. As an onscreen ticker tallies human deaths, you find yourself anxiously concerned that the number is rising too slowly to offset the rapid research for a cure, and you are forced to actually experience the give-and-take nature of human life. The player, in other words, is forced to occupy the perspective of an organism endangered by human flourishing. By “be[ing] the villain”—as a recent advertisement for the newly ported Pandemic 2.5 puts it—you accidentally think yourself into the position of a creature antagonized by human happiness. That’s easy enough if the creature is a cuddly panda, but to cause gamers visceral interest in the fate of a fictional pathogen marks quite a coup. It’s a stunning, and profoundly ecological, experience.

The game’s ecological importance stems from its suggestion that every victory for mankind may be a loss for some other creature in a zero-sum game of global domination. Some version of this notion—that the products of humankind’s global domination might not be worth their costs— has existed in Western thought in various forms for at least a century. By the first decade of the 20th century, Romantic anti-industrial and anti-capitalist attitudes had mingled with a new Darwinian awareness of the complexity and fragility of interactions between species, resulting in calls to curb or halt human expansion. Although such calls varied widely, ranging from the preservationist environmentalism of John Muir’s Sierra Club to the at times radically antihuman modernism of D. H. Lawrence, they shared a broad sense that human “progress” came at too great a cost to other creatures—or even to the planet as a whole—to continue unchecked.

Adherents to this view continue to grow.

The mainstreaming of conservationist principles has driven us to rethink both our consumption and our assumptions about other beings on the planet, but rarely to the extent implied by a game like Plague, Inc. It’s one thing to recycle; it’s another to sweat silently over the sheer number of digits denoting healthy humans living on this planet. We may never know precisely what it feels like to have our species’ very existence threatened by the encroachment of an alien kind, but the player of the pandemic sim experiences the strain that human life imposes on other creatures in the form of unselfconscious anxiety. The game play renders emotionally real what is perhaps the most famous (and famously controversial) dictum of the Deep Ecology movement: the insistence that “the flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population... [and t]he flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.”

It’s one thing to think, believe, or consider such a thing. It’s quite another to feel it. The pandemic sim is an intriguing experiment for the way it asks us to do so. Nevertheless, while Plague, Inc. works wonders with the particular strengths and weaknesses of its gaming platform, it suffers from the simplifications that dog many game interfaces. By turning the world into an antagonistic face-off between pathogens and people, it misrepresents the interests of both. Humans do not gain, in the long run, from unchecked population increases, and neither do pathogens. Global domination turned upside-down is still vulnerable to an imperialist mindset, and the developers of the game seem blind to the fact that any human pathogen that eliminated people would be committing its own form of ecological suicide. Outside of humans and their apparent enemies, the world of the pandemic sim is unrealistically empty. Players of Plague, Inc. can theoretically infect livestock, birds, rodents, and insects, but only as modes of infecting more humans. By reducing these creatures to mere modes of transmission for human infection, the game fails to understand what makes biological life tick, or the conditions required for its continuance.

In pushing the logic of so many video games—with their insistent focus on death and domination—to its absurdist conclusion, then, the pandemic sim creates a marvelous kind of satire with ecological undertones. It makes us think twice about the kinds of games we play, and about the surprisingly asocial nature of the intelligence required to win even—or especially—the most innocuous of them. It turns the perspectiveless nature of modern gameplay in newly productive directions, asking us to experience the world as the so-called villains do. But in the end it’s still a primitive kind of game, one in which someone needs to win and someone needs to lose. By maintaining this simplistic division of the world into heroes and villains, the pandemic simulator remains tied to the misrepresentations of life that drive so much of gaming, and so much of the worldview that games represent and promote. It cannot think beyond winning as domination, and that domination—in a networked, ecological world—still looks like a lot like loss. Then again, if the developers of Plague, Inc. cannot come up with a convincing way of winning with the worldview we have created, perhaps that, too, is only appropriate.

J. M. Miller is a doctoral candidate in English literature. His cultural criticism has appeared in ART PAPERS, Under/Current, and Afterimage. He likes people—up to a point—but he prefers nonhuman interest stories.


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.

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

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.