Sean Padilla

Returning from a nine-year hiatus, Swervedriver fused the ethereal textures of shoegaze with the heavy riffs and hard rhythms of grunge and came close to replicating the densely layered arrangements found on their records.



City: Austin, TX
Venue: Emo's
Date: 2008-06-03

Out of the many alternative rock bands of the 1990s that have reunited over the last couple of years, Swervedriver might be the one that most deserves a reappraisal. The band had a distinctive sound, one that fused the ethereal textures of shoegaze with the heavy riffs and hard rhythms of grunge. They’re also one of the few shoegaze bands to have lyrics that are both intelligible and good; listen to the heartbroken revenge fantasy "Last Train to Satansville", from their second album Mezcal Head, for proof. The band’s discography is a model of consistency: Four albums that ranged from good to amazing, interspersed with various singles and EPs of often-higher quality. Unfortunately, Swervedriver may have also been one of the decade's least lucky bands. They went through two bassists, two drummers, and three record labels before going on a well-earned hiatus in 1999. All of their records, save for 2005's double-disc compilation Juggernaut Rides, are out of print. When Swervedriver announced last fall that they would reunite for a world tour, I was a bit shocked. It seemed almost masochistic of them to do this after the calamities that befell them during the previous decade. That didn't stop me from awaiting their Austin show with bated breath. I was first exposed to their music 10 years ago, when they released their final album, the criminally underrated (even front man Adam Franklin unfairly slates it) 99th Dream. Unfortunately, I didn't live in a major city at the time, I was too young to go to shows, and the band was on its way out anyway. As Franklin said in an interview before their performance at this year's Coachella: "This time around it's 10 years on, and the people who saw us ten years ago would love to see us again, and a bunch of people have sprung up in the interim—it could be a good time!" Accuse them of cashing in on nostalgia if you want to, but I thank them for giving me a chance to see what I missed the first time around. I also have to thank whoever was responsible for booking the opening acts, because they couldn't have been more appropriate. Between the quintessential shoegaze of local quartet Ringo Deathstarr and the equally quintessential grunge of Scottish quartet Terra Diablo, the poles of Swervedriver's sound were outlined to the audience before they even walked on stage. I'm pretty sure you could break every Ringo Deathstarr song down into separate components using various My Bloody Valentine songs. For instance, the appropriately named "Swirly" equals the guitars and vocals from "Slow" plus the bass line from "I Can See It (But I Can't Feel It)" with drums culled from "Only Shallow". Still, criticizing a shoegaze band for being unoriginal is pointless, especially when the mimicry is done this well. The guitars made me woozy, the bass lines (which were played by a woman who looked almost exactly like Anne Hathaway) made my chest vibrate, and the songs lingered in my head long after front man Elliott Frazier ended the set by slamming his Fender guitar on the floor. Initially, Terra Diablo’s set was inauspicious, sounding like any number of bands with detuned guitars and raspy singers that Geffen—in its shameless attempts to release Nirvana’s Nevermind over and over again—signed in the mid-‘90s. It took a turn for the better, though, when the band launched into a convincing cover of the Beatles’ "Tomorrow Never Knows". After that, Terra Diablo played a few more originals that were exponentially better than the ones that they started with. These songs experimented with odd meters and Middle Eastern scales; bold moves for a band that’s still finding its feet stylistically. Swervedriver’s set exceeded all expectations. It amazed me how close the band came to replicating the densely layered arrangements on their records. Guitarists Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge were masters of synergistic guitar interplay, blurring the distinction between rhythm and lead, stepping on their pedals to change textures with the same frequency that most bands switch from verses to choruses. Bassist Steve George and drummer Jez Hindmarsh were slightly less flashy live than they were on record, but they compensated with power and dynamics. They accelerated "Son of Mustang Ford" to a tempo that would make many other bands careen into a wall, and decelerated "Deep Seat" and "Duress" to tempos that seemed to make time stop. Franklin’s singing was flawless, the sole exception occurring when he stopped during the last verse of "Rave Down" after accidentally getting hit in the face with the microphone. Needless to say, the front row lost its marbles when the band played that song, which was arguably the closest they ever came to a hit. Although Franklin’s banter was limited to the occasional "thank you," and his band mates did very little moving around on stage, at no point did Swervedriver look bored. Instead, they seemed imperturbable, content to simply bask in the audience’s appreciation. When Franklin lost his guitar strap during the intro of "Son of Mustang Ford", his facial expression didn’t change a bit. He just connected the strap back on, and waited until the first verse to start playing again. It wasn’t as if the music was any less loud without him! If there are any complaints to be made about Swervedriver’s set, it’s that it leaned a little too heavily on their earlier work. Out of the 17 songs they played, 10 were from their first two albums, Raise and Mezcal Head. As great as those albums are, another song or two from 99th Dream or Ejector Seat Reservation wouldn’t have hurt. Still, the band paid lip service to train-spotters like myself by throwing in two excellent B-sides ("Juggernaut Rides" and "Kill the Superheroes"). If any more evidence of their undiminished live prowess is needed, just ask my friend Leonard (guitarist of local shoegazers Honey Thief), who saw Swervedriver’s previous Austin show 10 years ago. He confessed to me that they were better this time around.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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