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krausSOUNDTRACK: THE FLAMING LIPS-The Terror (2013).

terror After the distortion heavy and heaviness of At War with the Mystics and Embryonic (to say nothing of their other experimental releases), I wasn’t sure what to expect from an album called The Terror.  Yet with a title like that the album is far more invested in psychological terror than in pummeling you with scary noises and music.  The album is more unsettling and spooky with existential dread.

Wayne Coyne has always been a pretty optimistic guy–weird, sure, dealing with feelings of dread, sure, but never so dark and insular.  But I learned that before recording this album and most likely as an impetus to record it,  Coyne separated from his partner of 25 years, Michelle, and Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd temporarily relapsed into addiction.

In an interview, Drozd says the album is like a crisis of life confidence.  He also says that the uniformity in sonic style was intentional: “Instead of writing songs and then figuring out sounds, we’d write the other way around: create sounds then make songs out of those sounds.”

So the vocals are quite low in the mix, and there is not a lot of “music” in the album.  Rather there are layers of sounds–swishing synths, spiraling noises, percussion effects that seems to almost cover up the vocals, giving it a very claustrophobic effect.  “Look… The Sun Rising” opens the disc.  It is primarily percussion with some noisy sounds and really sharp piercing guitars (that play noisy counterpoint to the soothing chorus of Oh Oh Ohs).  And yet after all of that noise and chaos, the very lovely “Be Free, A Way” surfaces as a quiet introspective song.  There are gentle keyboard notes (not unlike on Yoshimi) that propel this song along.  “Try to Explain” is a pretty song with some unusual sound effects swirling around it (The Lips can’t so straight up pretty, right?).  And yet lyrically, this song, along with the rest, is very dark indeed.

“You Lust” is a 13 minute (!) invocation about various forms of lust.  It opens with the couplet: “You’ve got a lot of nerve/A lot of nerve to fuck with me.”  The middle of the song is a kind of Pink Floydian keyboard workout.  It’s a  lengthy jam that’s kind of samey, but I’ll bet if you can really sit (with headphones) and close your eyes and focus it’s pretty intense.  After about ten minutes of that repetitive claustrophobia, some lightening occurs with sprinkled keyboard notes.

“The Terror” is primarily in Coyne’s falsetto, and it seems gentle until the mechanized noises come bursting forth.  “You Are Alone” is the shortest thing here, under 4 minutes of squeaking noises.  And again, a lovely melody despite the title.  I feel like this song summarizes the album pretty well.  In it, Coyne sings “I’m not alone” while a deeper voice replies, “you are alone.”  Whose voice will ultimately win?

  “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” returns to that abrasive guitar of the earlier tracks, but the main body of this 7 minute song is just bass, keening keyboards and Coyne’s whispered voice.  There’s a recurring synth line that is magical and/or creepy depending on your frame of mind.  It, along with many of the other songs, have a kind of coda that links the songs.  This one is mostly just choral voices, but it twists the ends of the songs in a different direction. “Turning Violent” is a quiet track, in which Coyne sounds nearly defeated until the second half of the song grows louder and more animated with layers of vocals.  The disc ends with “Always There…In Our Hearts” which seems to offer some hope…maybe.  There’s signs of uplift in the melody, and when the drums kick in at the end, it seems to propel the song into a more intense frame of mind.

And lyrically, despite all of the darkness that is always there in our hearts, there is a light peeking out: “always therein our hearts a joy of life that overwhelms.”

Although most reviewers find this album unremittingly bleak, I find the music to be beautiful in an aching sort of way–a beautiful way to deal with pain (better than getting the same tattoo as Miley Cyrus, anyway).

[READ: October 31, 2014] The Kraus Project

The title page of this book read: The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen with assistance and additional notes from Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann.

So just what is this thing anyhow?  Well Karl Kraus was a German writer (1874-1936) whose main contributions to letters were some essays and a newsletter Die Fackel (The Torch).  The authors compare the newspaper (favorably) to a blog (while also complaining about what blogs have done to letters).  He started Die Fackel in 1899 and he continued to direct, publish, and write it until his death.  He used the paper to launch attacks on hypocrisy, psychoanalysis, corruption of the Habsburg empire, nationalism of the pan-German movement, laissez-faire economic policies, and numerous other subjects.  For the first ten or so years, Kraus was the editor, accepting contributions from around the German speaking word.  But in 1911, he became the sole contributor to the newsletter.

He also wrote many essays (he did not care much for fiction), including the two main ones that compression this book: “Heine and the Consequences” (1910) and “Nestroy and Posterity” (1912).  The book also includes two follow up essays: “Afterword to Heine and the Consequences” and “Between Two Strains of Life: Final Word to Heine and the Consequences” (1917) and a poem: “Let No One Ask…” (1934).

The essays themselves are quite brief.  Despite the first coming in at 135 pages, note that the left pages are all in German (so reduce 135 by half), nearly all of the English pages are filled with footnotes (reduce by half again) and some of the footnotes run for several pages.  So the essay could be said to be about 25-30 pages.

The same is true for all of the pages in the book.  The left sides are in German (except the footnotes) and most pages are split in half because of the footnotes.  Which means that Franzen and friends write far more than Kraus did.  Ultimately, this book is actually three things: It is a collection of Kraus’ essays with Franzen’s fine translation; it is an explication of Kraus’ attitude and about life in Germany during Kraus’ life and finally it is an insight into Franzen as a young man living in Germany and why Kraus was so appealing to him.

The first part: Kraus’ essays. (more…)

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