Top Five Comics
Mark Waid’s series Irredeemable depicted a world where a Superman-esque figure refused to make the personal sacrifices necessary to become a hero, and in doing so became a mass-murdering super-villain. Mark Grayson, the titular alter-ego of Robert Kirkman’s Invincible, was nearly being beaten to death by his own “was a super-villain all along” father. Since then he has consistently sacrificed his own happiness in favour of saving lives. Now as a new father, he’s finally tried to have a life of his own. He turns down the chance to literally undo every mistake he’s ever made and save countless lives, because it would mean losing his marriage and undoing his daughter’s existence. For that decision he’s returned to his life, but years later, forcing him to miss most of his daughters’ childhood. Basically Mark Grayson can’t catch a break. The series, which will end with Issue #144 this November, lays bare the internal turmoil that stoic archetypes like Superman internalize for our benefit. I’m kind of dreading the series finale, as Kirkman has no problems with stabbing his audience in the heart. Will Mark be a hero, or will he be happy? Regardless, I’m glad that the end is in sight. Kirkman’s most successful property, The Walking Dead, benefits from the feeling that it may never end. But that doesn’t help Invincible. This series deserves an end as wonderful and devastating as anything it’s already brought forth.
2. The Legend of Wonder Woman
This could have perhaps been the most epic Wonder Woman series in the history of the character. The series, created by Renae De Liz and husband Ray Dillon, had sold well but that wasn’t enough to prevent DC Comics from cancelling the series. Apparently the couple were not easy to deal with, and both made negative tweets about their employer as well. However it also seems that DC did not give any indication that they did not plan to continue to the series. So with their expectant income now gone De Liz and Dillion set up a GoFundMe page, and to date have raised over $5,000 (2.5X more than they were asking for). The collected edition is out now. It’s full of deep characterization and artwork that conveys as much emotion and motivation as the dialogue.
Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Shakespearean space opera is the most easily likable ongoing series out there. Most decent titles today hook you in with a slow build, but Saga provides instant gratification with every issue. The plot is essentially reverse Romeo and Juliet, in that the two lovers from opposing teams go on the run with their kid instead of offing themselves. Sounds basic on paper, but the hook comes from engaging characters living a rich and eclectic mythological universe.
4. The Mighty Thor
This involves spoilers. For me Marvel peaked in the 90s story-wise. Since then I feel their titles too often have ventured into daytime soap territory with unrelenting deus ex machina escape hatches. But the past few years have seen the debut of number of Marvel titles that are more centered on character development rather than loopy stories. So when Thor basically loses his mojo and becomes unworthy to lift the hammer Mjölnir, the cancer-stricken Dr. Jane Foster becomes the a new God so-to-speak, even though it’s worsening her condition. Thor is a unique character in comics because of his direct ties to Norse mythology. So replacing him is not as simple as someone else putting on the costume. Marvel vet Jason Aaron counter-balances the standard pseudo-formal Thor diction with Foster’s casual inner monologue to create one of the most down-to-Earth gods you’ll ever meet, and artist Russell Dauterman’s lavish illustrations give these characters room to breathe, or crush each other, whatever’s easier.
5. Crossed +100
Set in Garth Ennis’ Crossed universe, where an infection turned most of humanity in a mixture of psycho killers and zombies with a tell-tale plus-sign rash on their face, Crossed +100 is an eighteen issue series with the first six issues penned by comics’ snake-worshipping grandpa Alan Moore. Taking place a hundred years after the carnage of the original series, humanity only just begun to recover. In America there are settlements scattered across the country. Language and slang have merged, and Islam is the religion of choice. Moore sets the stage, with a five issue run of dread that leads to first act ending that lands like a nuclear explosion. The remaining twelve issues were picked up by British writer Simon Spurrier, who has previous experience in the Crossed universe with the web-comic Wish You Were Here. Picking up a story from Moore seems daunting, but Spurrier ably rounds out the plot creatively and walks away on a brutal and satisfying conclusion.
Top Five Albums
1. Ihsahn - Arktis
There are enough sublime moments throughout Ihsahn’s five previous albums as a solo artist to make you think that he’s been consistently hitting it out of the park since Emperor stopped releasing new music over fifteen years ago. While each album has some extreme high-points (most of which appears on his 2006 debut The Adversary and the dreamy After in 2010), none of them fully click as a collection of songs. Maybe that’s the reason why Arktis sounds so exciting, with each song succeeding on a different level. The album moves gracefully between the smooth modern prog-rock style that Ihsahn favours today and his black metal roots. Although it’s just as experimental as his previous albums, Ihsahn has now finally found a sound that could be described as his own. It’s as defining for him as a solo artist, as Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk was for his previous band. Listen to the tracks “Pressure” and “Mass Darkness.”
2. Jazz Cartier - Hotel Paranoia
Those who bemoan the fact that Drake is probably Toronto’s most well-known artist would do well to listen to Jazz Cartier. At just 23, the guy has huge underground cred and sells out shows around the world. The first thing that struck me about his style was that he didn’t sound like a Canadian rapper. When I interviewed him in 2015, he attributed his tone to the fact that moved around a lot as a kid due to his father’s career as a diplomat. He lived in a few U.S. cities as well as Barbados and Kuwait, and that experience has informed his bombastic, yet introspective style. Hotel Paranoia finds Cartier ruminating on how the positive reception of his breakthrough album Marauding In Paradise (2015) has affected his life. While his new status as the self-proclaimed “Prince of the City” is both gratifying and self-assuring, it’s naturally come with a new set of problems and betrayals. Cartier goes deep on all of it. Download the album for free here.
3. Perturbator - The Uncanny Valley
Perturbator is the result of a black metal-obsessed French/English kid named James Kent who decided to take on the world of retro darkwave electronic music. Think of your favourite piece of video game music, mix in an 80s goth atmosphere and a black metal tone, and you’ll see why Perturbator hits all the right notes to grab fans from all three scenes. Kent’s just made his North American debut this month playing seven select dates including a stop in Montreal. Look for my interview with Perturbator from Iceland’s Eistnaflug Festival to be released very soon, and you can download his latest and most diverse album The Uncanny Valley for the price of your choosing (so for free if you want) here.
4. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition
When the party’s going perfectly and it seems as if your life couldn’t get any better, it’s not uncommon to have an odd moment of self reflection. Maybe it’s your endorphins but for a few seconds you feel outside yourself, and everything moves in slow motion. You briefly find yourself questioning what you’re doing in that moment, before the rush of the current drags you back in. That’s what I feel Danny Brown’s music is about, the extreme highs and lows that come with having a really, really good time. The only difference is that Brown goes way harder when it comes to partying than I do (at least the version of him that appears on record). Atrocity Exhibition finds the beats finally catching up to Brown’s delivery in terms of both excitement and weirdness. Check out "Pneumonia" and "When It Rain."
5. Lady Gaga - Joanne
Former pop stars like Skye Sweetnam and Vanessa Carlton abandoned the mainstream machine in favour of making alternative music on their own terms to a smaller, but more dedicated fanbase. In that sense Lady Gaga wants to have her cake and eat it too. She tried it for the first time in 2013 with the avant-garde ARTPOP, but it ended up being a case of preaching to the converted. Three years later her response was to create an alt-rock album that wouldn’t be out of place with The Cardigans or Tori Amos. Throw in a couple epic Josh Homme appearances and the best ode to self-pleasure since “She-Bop,” and Gaga perfectly executes her dream of creating an underground album for the mainstream. She also got me to think of Mark Ronson as a guitarist, which is crazy all by itself. Also, at a time where many are complaining about lip-syncing and auto-tune, Gaga decided to show off her voice at it’s rawest.
Screen Shot from ANTIFA Video
A couple weeks back, the final night of Montreal’s Messe des Morts Festival was besieged by a group of anti-fascist protesters who turned out in full force to oppose the evening’s headliner, the Polish Pagan black metal band Graveland. The band, who is touring for the first time in their twenty five year history, is led by Rob "Darken" Fudali, a man who in the past has made statements affiliating himself with Nazism, and who has a reputation as one of the more significant extreme right-wing personalities in the metal scene. Labeling the whole event as racist, the protesters used smoke bombs and other violent tactics, and were able to have the show shut down. Many of the concert-goers targeted by the protesters were visible minorities, and were also accused of being Nazis. In the aftermath of these events and some spirited discussions on social media, the fine folks at Metal Insider reached out to me for my thoughts, and I had many. Read my editorial "Fascism and Blasphemy: Thoughts On Messe des Morts, Graveland, and ANTIFA" over at MetalInsider.net.
It’s taken me a bit of time to process Combichrist’s new album This Is Where Death Begins. Without much warning the formerly beat-driven industrial aggro-tech ensemble has reinvented themselves as an electro-metal punk band. Over the past decade the Norwegian/American act claimed their spot as the next in line to lead the industrial underground in the grand KMFDM-tradition. Some fans had already predicted a shift in direction after the band created a metal-based soundtrack for the game Devil May Cry in 2013. However their following release, We Love You (2014), despite having a few guitar-driven tracks, was a largely electronic affair laden with heavy techno beats. I spoke with band founder Andy LaPlegua about that album, and he said that the mix of styles came from a decision to funnel tracks into Combichrist that would have normally gone into his side projects. It remains unclear as to whether the change in tone on the new album is a result of this.
Generally speaking, is it a good album? Yes. But is it a good Combichrist album? I’m not quite sure (more on that later). To be fair, this album isn’t entirely bereft of electronic music. It’s pretty much the inverse of We Love You, as that album had a few guitar tracks mixed in, and in this case it’s industrial music that makes a guest appearance.
Immediate standouts include “My Life My Rules,” which follows a similar structure as a number of the band’s more upbeat songs except with riffs instead of beats. “Blackened Heart” is a hard-driving mid-tempo rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on a nineties Ministry album. The ultra-catchy “Skullcrusher” gets by largely on humour, but it’s also pretty damn infectious, despite not really fitting in with the rest of the album.
“Don’t Care How You Feel About It,” with its heavy base and pitch-shifted vocals, is the closest the band comes to their previous style, and the pseudo-title track “Homeward” continues their tradition of dropping a dark and memorable acoustic track on each release. But the best moments come from when the band combines both sides of their sound together. “Glitchteeth” is an understated and surprisingly funky track with a memorable chorus and minimalistic beats, while the brutally heavy and danceable “Exit Eternity” is likely to become a fan favourite.
So yes it’s a good album. But is it a good Combichrist album? I’m going to say yes, for now. How people will remember this album is largely riding on where the band goes from here. As a companion record to We Love You, This Is Where Death Begins actually makes sense. But I’m not sure that it completely makes the case for Combichrist as a metal-punk band. I would be personally happier if they continue to blend styles, rather than one be more dominant than the other. If they do in fact want to carry on in this form, then the pressure’s on, because the next one will have to be a true monster for their current fans to accept the change long-term. Regardless of what shape they take, it’s the albums to come that will most likely determine how this one is regarded.
Photo by Oliver Rath
Combichrist are currently on the “Make Europe Great Again” tour with Filter. This Is Where Death Begins is available now, and you can watch the blood-soaked NSFW video for “My Life My Rules” below.