Saturday, February 25, 2017

Out of The Ditch: The Mindful Perspective of Neil Young's Zuma

[This piece is part of an ongoing series about mindfulness in music.  I initially intended for this to be a ten-album list, but quickly found the subject to be too broad while simultaneously too restrictive.  Mindfulness is an intrinsic aspect of consciousness, and while indirect references to it are everywhere, it rarely serves as a primary topic.  Furthermore, the experience of music is a mindful activity in and of itself...leading to the infamous meditator's paradox of "thinking about thinking".  In the spirit of circumventing that rabbit hole,   I chose to focus on one album at a time, and more closely examine any mindful aspects therein.  Since I've come to mindfully accept that I cannot write anything without it eventually being about Neil Young, I figured that would be a good place to start.]

1972’s Harvest put Neil Young at the top of the world.  The chart-topping record, particularly lead single Heart of Gold, made a mellow, lovelorn incarnation of Neil into a ubiquitous cultural figure.  Its astronomical success and the drug-related deaths of bandmate Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry shortly thereafter provoked Neil into making a now-characteristic musical 180.  In his own words, Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road.  Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch”.  His ensuing albums served as a boozy, drawn-out exorcism of grief and guilt.  Young formed a temporary backing band dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers, and messily confronted his demons on tape.  Perpetually drunk, he became increasingly reclusive and volatile during the recording of Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach.  The albums consist almost entirely of first-take recordings, done using a mobile studio situated outside the drunken benders that were the band’s recording sessions.  We’re not going to polish this up” he told guitarist Nils Lofgren, “we’re going to play passionately, kind of live and record it as we go.  I want people to see it how it is”.  Meanwhile on a disastrous arena tour, audiences expecting the country-folk acoustic troubadour of Harvest were instead thrown into a scattershot electric assault.  The experience is captured in the live album Time Fades Away.  By all accounts, Young spent this tumultuous period seemingly hell-bent on sinking himself as far down as he could go.  Although the resulting output was critically panned at the time, it is now widely appreciated for its recklessness and earnest darkness.  In tune with his own assessment, the three albums have become affectionately known as “The Ditch Trilogy”.  Having endured three years in his own personal hell, by 1975 Neil would reform Crazy Horse with new guitarist Frank Sampedro and emerge from the ditch with Zuma.

Zuma is named after a famous beach in Malibu, where Neil resided during the album’s development.  The sunny surroundings, reincarnation of Crazy Horse, and the presence of free-spirited and enthusiastic Sampedro (nicknamed “Poncho”) gave the album an aura of brightness and rejuvenation.  “Somehow I feel like I’ve surfaced out of some kind of murk”, Neil told Cameron Crowe in a 1975 interview.  This sense of clarity and acceptance features prominently throughout the record.  Even on the imagery-drenched guitar meanderings of Danger Bird and Cortez the Killer, Neil displays a renewed level of focus and momentum.  Like the surfers at Zuma Beach, Young catches the wave of Crazy Horse’s freewheeling garage-rock style.  This concentrated momentum makes for an album that is planted firmly in the here and now, infinitely receptive to the moment.

On the breezy, country-tinged Lookin’ for a Love, Neil envisions himself on a beach that he “walks along sometimes”.  It is there that he meets his hypothetical love, and “never stops to think of any other time”.  The song subverts the expected themes of longing and desire by emphasizing the potential for love, rather than any presence or absence of it.  Instead of dwelling on the imaginary relationship, Neil’s lyrics focus on “the sun hitting the water and the mountains meeting the sand”, and remembering to “live and make the best of what he sees”.  As much as he looks forward to meeting this girl, he doesn’t care how long it takes, and acknowledges that “she’ll be nothing like he pictures her to be”.  It is a feeling of content anticipation, left to be exactly as it is – uninvaded by thought or judgment. 

This mindful stance is also taken regarding the past in Don’t Cry No Tears.  When faced with the thought of old love now unrequited, Neil opts out of jealousy by accepting that it has nothing to do with him anymore, deciding to leave it as is.  True love ain’t too hard to see,” he says, leaving no reason to dwell on it.  As Zuma’s opening track, it may as well represent a personal awakening from the preceding period of darkness.    

This isn’t to say Neil’s got it all figured out.  Pardon My Heart illustrates the futility of a coasting relationship (where one isn’t giving/and one pretends to receive).  In its own way, Stupid Girl laments an inability to absolve the suffering of others.  Neil seems reluctant in pegging the titular character as stupid as she misses opportunities for self-actualization because she can’t “forget about remembering”.  Meanwhile Barstool Blues seems to be a cryptic take on the confusing struggle with thought and consciousness.  Right in the middle of an album where Neil seems to have found contentment, he can’t help but look over his shoulder and wonder if it’s real. 

This confusion and uncertainty comes up directly but briefly in closing track Through My Sails.  No solution or explanation is offered by the sparse lyrics.  Instead the ideas are carried off onto the breeze by easy harmonies and buoyant acoustics.  Love had been an understated recurring theme throughout the album, yet its final mention is simply that “love takes care”.  In that is found serenity, and there doesn’t need to be anything more.

With the dissipation of the post-Harvest darkness, Zuma carries a profound sense of leaning back into the world.  There is still some unease, but it no longer carries any weight.  The positive outlook of taking the present moment at face value overshadows any doubt and discontent.  Zuma is about accepting the wreckage of a dark period, and the decision to move forward from it. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Throwback Album of the Week: Black Sabbath - Sabotage

Although it was not their last album with Ozzy, Sabotage very much plays as the breaking point for original-lineup Sabbath.  Already the heaviest band on earth, struggles with drug addiction and legal issues with their record label created the perfect storm for their fifth album to reach unheard of levels of volatility, heaviness, and experimentation.  On Sabotage, overblown grandiosity coexists with outright aggression, and unpredictability reigns supreme.  I was about 14 when a borrowed copy from my dad’s vinyl collection became the first rock music to legitimately scare me.  I haven’t been able to get enough ever since. 

Lead song Hole in the Sky is one of the band’s most immediate rockers, and the churning, perpetual rhythm of Symptom of the Universe laid the foundation for the upcoming "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" and is often credited with initiating the thrash metal aesthetic.  These guys had always been scary, but it’s clear from the beginning of Sabotage that now they’re pissed off.  While their earlier material preferred to lurch about in dark atmospherics, Sabotage’s opening tracks are straight downhill; less menacing than they are pummeling and overbearing.  It starts getting weird with the aptly-named side-one closer Megalomania.  The track grinds its way into larger-than-life territory via Ozzy’s coked-out obsession with tracking his vocals several times over and drummer Bill Ward’s similar deal with “backwards cymbal” and other effects.  The band had never sounded more unhinged, yet it all seems to fit.  Megalomania does not surpass a snail’s pace until nearly four minutes in, instead alternating between sullen laments and depraved cries of agony- all seeming to come from unfathomable depths of murk.  By the time the song kicks into gear halfway through, you know you’re at the mercy of a madman.  The band clearly hits a stride though, delivering their familiar aesthetic with bursting immediacy and edge.

Side two opens with The Thrill of it All, which begins as a solid riff-based track but very quickly grows out of itself to the point of pomposity.  The song is okay, it just becomes too bouncy and light for the albums context, sounding much more like what Ozzy would go on to do with his solo career (a trap also succumbed to by later song Am I Going Insane).  However, it gives way to the gloriously devilish Supertzar; a grinding instrumental that immediately restores all of the evilness that Sabbath had built their legacy upon.  Tony Iommi unleashes one of his darkest guitar riffs, only to be dramatically harmonized by a catholic-esque choir.  On a promising album that threatened to blow itself out of proportion, Supertzar is brilliantly placed, taking the top off while simultaneously bringing the band back to its roots in a big way. 

The albums final epic The Writ opens with a droning bassline before giving way to a jarringly hostile verse section; which lyrically seems to depict the wrongdoing of the band’s record label at the time.  Whatever the case, The Writ ends Sabotage in remarkably fitting fashion.  The track plays as much too overblown for the band’s own good, while also devastatingly suffocating in its heaviness.  It should also be noted that during the song’s midsection I used to be absolutely sure that Ozzy was chanting “Matt…” which increased its impact tenfold...  I still choose to believe, though it apparently is “rat”

Due to circumstances in and out of their responsibility, Black Sabbath was clearly a band spiraling out of control in the mid-70s.  This clearly had an effect on the making of Sabotage.  Although the album certainly has its missteps, overall it uses the surrounding tension to forge a new approach which at several points thrusts the band to the pinnacle of their powers.  By virtue of their own personal undoings as well as unfortunate legal struggles, Black Sabbath solidified their status as heavy metal pioneers with 1975's Sabotage, laying the aggressive and suffocating foundation for thrash, progressive, and doom metal music yet to come.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

ALBUM REVIEW: Brian Fallon - Painkillers (2016)

Ten years ago The Gaslight Anthem burst onto the punk rock radar with their no-holds-barred anthems of urgency and desperation.  They played the songs for Kerouac’s mad ones, “mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time”.  Five albums and one breakup later, frontman Brian Fallon reinterprets these themes through content nostalgia on his debut solo album Painkillers.  

Fallon’s style has always been of earnest authenticity, and Painkillers allows him to truly stretch his legs as a songwriter.  While upbeat and energetic, these are songs built around acoustic progressions and sparse arrangements which leave Fallon plenty of room to say everything he needs to.  There is a general sense of loss to the album, but no evident grief.  Instead Fallon seems to achieve an almost zen-like optimism, the kind of liberation that shines through when the weight of grieving is relieved.  This is especially cathartic on the barroom stomp-along Smoke (“you just became something like some smoke that I tried too hard to hold”) and mid-album standout Nobody Wins, on which he offers a toast to an old love in case he’s already seen her for the last time.  Painkillers is full of this type of warm, past-tense love song.  Fallon seems to be looking back with a smile at the things he spent a decade singing about aggressively pursuing with Gaslight, which now rest behind him in memory.  This is a man who’s chased enough ghosts to know that you can’t always ‘end up the lucky ones’, and sometimes it’s okay to blame it on the wind. 

It has always been easy to compare Brian Fallon to his fellow Jersey-boy influence Bruce Springsteen.  The likening holds true on lead single A Wonderful Life, with its driving rhythm, layered guitars and percussion, and an absolutely massive “woah-oh” laden chorus.  The remaining tracks however tend to leave the grandiosity behind in favor of more Tom Petty-esque down-to-earth confessionals and simple, breezy accompaniment.  Fallon has always displayed some folk leanings in his songwriting, and without Gaslight’s power his new batch of songs sways towards straight-up Americana.  Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter of personal preference, but there’s no doubting that Fallon is firmly in his own element.  He navigates the rustic, wide-open song structures with his heart on his sleeve; every lyric and twangy electric guitar lead carries weight and meaning.  The presence of familiar elements to his lyrical style (girls, radios, old cars, “bleeding” as a metaphor for passion and emotion) give him an auteur type quality.   

Overall, it’s hard not to feel like Painkillers is the album that Brian Fallon was always destined to make.  After a decade of singing for the aforementioned mad ones, desire has turned to abandonment yet Fallon’s idyllic version of America and rock and roll underdog dreams persist.  Painkillers is an album about coming to peace with the past, and appreciating it for the empowering freedom of remaining true to oneself.  Fallon understands the pain that sometimes comes with having an insatiable lust for life, and his optimistic spirit shines bright for anyone who has found themselves having to go it alone.  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Totally Raddest Pop-Punk Albums Ever, Dude [part one]

Within any medium, genre is a dangerous topic.  It exists for a reason and is supposed to just be; its rules and borders clearly stated for our convenience.  While classification may work well in your high school science room, with the meticulously arranged pinned up butterfly corpses, when it comes to art we sure are good at fucking with it.  In the music world talking about genre is akin to performing open heart surgery while wearing oven mitts.  It is an increasingly live-wire topic, because music is more wide-open than it has ever been, and people are not only category driven by nature, but we’re VERY defensive when it comes to our tastes.  In attempt to satisfy both our chaotic nature and our organizational desires we’ve developed an intricate web of genres and sub-genres.  Because that's what we do.
      Among the most divisive sub-genres to emerge form this obsession is “pop-punk”.  Despite its inherent contradiction certain bands took this niche to heart, flooding the airwaves with boy bands wearing tattoos and piercings.  In their wake it is easy to forget that from the time Johnny Ramone first picked up a guitar, lighthearted energy and just plain FUN has been a key element at the very core of punk rock.  Forget about the Hot Topic-manufacured pretty boys on on MTV and the cover of AP, and while you’re at it forget about the diamond studded macho toughguy try-hards as well.  I’m talking about something real, something that when it comes down to it is the heart of punk.  I’m talking about bands that make music that's as energetic and light as it is angsty and aggressive, without any posturing or pretense.  These bands make loud, fast, punk music without ever losing track of the fun of it.  To me, that’s what pop-punk means; and why it will always remain relevant. 

The Ramones were the first punk rock band.  What often goes unacknowledged however is that when the buzzsaw guitars and "Hey-Ho, Let's Go"s broke the doors open for the American punk movement; Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy also became the creators of POP-punk music.  What the Ramones did was take everything that was great about pre-Beatles rock n roll, condensed it into distorted guitars, bass, and drums, and delivered it with lightning speed and youthful recklessness.  What seems to get lost in their legacy is the undeniable melodicism that they maintained through all of the speed and aggressiveness.  Sure they were fast, hard, and a bit vulgar, but the Ramones weapon of choice was always the two-and-a-half minute pop song.  For them it was often downright silly, and was never NOT fun.  

Over the course of 18 months after bursting onto the scene in 1976, The Ramones released two more albums that further crystalized the pop-punk sound with such immortal tracks as Pinhead, Sheena is a Punk Rocker, Cretin Hop, Rockaway Beach, and Teenage Lobotomy.  Especially on their third outing, 1977s Rocket to Russia, the heart of the band was early Beach Boys style pop played on distorted guitars at warp speed; quite literally in the case of their lightning fast cover of Do You Wanna Dance.

It is nearly impossible to talk about any post-70s music without bringing up The Ramones, and this topic places them firmly on the throne.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that nobody has done pop-punk better since.  That said, its nearly universal appeal and “anyone can do it” aesthetic has certainly brought us a handful of gems.  

Green Day - Dookie (1994)

I don't want to talk about how this album simultaneously changed the faces of both punk music and pop music as we know them.  That is a discussion for another time.  The fact of the matter is that Dookie is one of the very few straight-up, all-things-considered masterpieces of BOTH pop and punk music.  This album is a rapid-fire collection of 14 songs that are so immediately catchy and accessible, yet at the same time so aggressive and energetic that it leaves you wondering what the hell you've just been hit by- and why you cannot get it out of your head.  This is the sound of a band that had honed its punk chops in basements and warehouses before finally making their headlong charge into the mainstream.  They weren’t timid in doing so, unleashing hostile onslaughts and quasi-ballads alongside the now hit singles.  While their ensuing success lead to their exile from the scene that raised them, Green Day made the important statement that even in the grungy early 90s, punk rock could still be a damn good time.  

Jawbreaker - 24 Hour Revenge Therapy  (1994)

Sometimes considered among the early forefathers of "emo" music, Jawbreaker is certainly a bit more serious than many bands in the pop-punk spectrum.  Songwriter Blake Schwarzenbach penned extremely thoughtful, literary lyrics, and was never afraid to address depressing subject matter head-on.  His droll ashy voice and mid-tempo style is a breath of fresh air in the genre (oddly enough, as merely listening to him makes you feel like you’d just smoked a pack of Marlboros).  Jawbreaker’s entire four-LP catalog is great, but 24 Hour Revenge Therapy represents the perfect middle ground between their abrasive early years and their melodramatic burnout.  As ground-zero for a number of now prevalent stylings, listening to this album is like going back to the pure and simple basics.  Perhaps Schwarzenbach himself best sums it up best with the opening lines of Boxcar; “I’m not a punk, and I’m telling everyone”.   

Blink 182 - Dude Ranch  (1997)

Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket are probably better albums overall, but nowhere in Blink's catalog is their relentless energy and humor on better display than on their final pre-breakthrough record.  With the exception of Dammit (which is probably their best ever song) there isn’t much in the way of singles here.  These songs are unrestrained and much less calculated than what would later make them superstars.  The same catchiness and accessibility is there, but never wrapped up in shiny pop packages- Dude Ranch is brash, in-your-face, and obnoxious from start to finish.  The driving power chords hardly let up for the albums entire 45-minute runtime; intertwined with Tom DeLong’s hyperactive pseudo-shredding and punctuated by he and Mark Hoppus’s razor witted tagteam vocals.  Travis Barker’s drumming virtuosity is missed, but Scott Raynor does a fine job and his comparatively amateurish style fits well with the album’s vibe. 

Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady  (1979)

In a certain sense, the way that the Buzzcocks stand up to The Clash and The Sex Pistols is a microcosm of how pop-punk bands in general stand next to their more 'hardcore' brethren.  While their late-70s English contemporaries launched a full-on assault on social norms and broken political systems, all The Buzzcocks wanted to know was why nobody would fall in love with them.  Unlike Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten, Pete Shelley never seemed set out to provoke change, he only demanded acceptance.  The urgency of his earnest and relatable songcraft would serve as a baseline for generations to come.  

Lillingtons - Death By Television  (1999)

Hailing from the vibrant punk rock community of Laramie, Wyoming (…), the Lillingtons play(ed) simple, fast, bouncy, and fun Ramones-style songs, with a brilliantly creative twist.  The lyrical subject matter of their masterpiece Death By Television is themed entirely on retro science fiction b-movies.  By undermining the usual seriousness of songwriting the Lillingtons bring us immediately to their side as they rock out to apemen on the moon, evil robots, and brain control.  Their whole approach plays as an enjoyable, rockin’ send-up to the melodramatic, tongue in cheek nature of pop-punk.  Musically this album is built on momentum, perpetuated by a well-oiled power chord machine and Bad Religion-esque deadpan vocals.  The two worlds collide to form an album that is as about as close to perfect as it gets. 

The Ergs! - Jersey's Best Prancers  (2006)

Since their inception in 2000, New Jersey’s The Ergs! have been omnipresent in the pop-punk scene; playing basement shows as regularly as they serve as the opening act on big-time tours while simultaneously releasing a constant stream of singles, EPs, splits, etc.  Even following their 2008 breakup, their immortality has prevailed.  Mikey Erg is possibly the most efficient songwriter on this list.  His matter-of-fact, almost nerdy vocal style is the perfect delivery system for his clever lyrics; always vaguely jokey and (possibly) satirical, yet never coming off as silly.  Stir consistently with the band’s ultra-distilled, Ramones/Buzzcocks-esque hook-laden approach, and you’ve got a winning formula.  

Screeching Weasel - Boogadaboogadaboogada  (1988)

As the obvious (and well-documented) main influence behind early Blink-182, Chicago’s own Screeching Weasel can rightly be considered the instigators of modern pop-punk’s irreverent sense of humor.  Ben Weasel and company not only employ standard subject material of girls and mental illness, but regularly go out of their way to apathetically hit on hot-button social and political issues.  All the while, of course, the rhythms bounce on and shimmering, upbeat guitar leads steal the show.  It’s all so rudimentary, but when it’s this hooky and enjoyable, you’d be the fool to care.  

Teenage Bottlerocket - Total  (2005)

Comprising the rest of that Wyoming scene… Teenage Bottlerocket shares Lillingtons guitarist Kody Templeman to craft another near perfect pop-punk record with Total.  While the subject matter is a bit more real life than their Laramie contemporaries; Total tends to focus on girls and relationships, shitty jobs, and the coolness of music; the energy and hooks are still here in spades.  The faux-crooning, stuttering vocal delivery is not only reminiscent of The Ramones, but at times nearly Elvis-like.  Despite its seemingly limited repertoire, Total plays through dynamically the way that an album should.  Best encapsulated by the start/stop rhythms of Crashing, this is a band that knows when to hold off and when to go full steam ahead.  Oh yeah, this album includes the absolute best ode to all pissed off food-industry workers of the world- Blood Bath at Burger King.

New Found Glory - Sticks and Stones  (2002)

Sticks and Stones was a perfect album for its time, hitting right at the pop-punk peak while simultaneously hinting just enough at the oncoming heavy breakdowns and obnoxiously angsty lyrics of an over-commercialized subgenre.  It was with this album that the kenetic musical energy that defines pop punk met the contrived whiny-voiced angst and pretty-boy posturing that the genre would become; but because the songcraft is so authentic, the momentum so perpetual, it all just seems to work.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Throwback Track of the Week: Neil Young - I'm the Ocean

By 1995, Neil Young had spent the past three decades evolving from innocent young folkie, to nihilistic grunge-pioneering Les Paul slinger, to experimental weirdo, to weathered elder-statesman, and then back and forth over and over again.  He earned respect through his genuine, rustic songwriting (whether acoustic or electric), and through relentless refusal of genre crafted an enduring persona of a fierce individualist; eager to experiment and embrace new, of-the-times sounds, and generally unwilling to give a shit.  As loud, noisy, “alternative rock” exploded in popularity, his work with Crazy Horse earned him the title of Godfather of Grunge, and got him quoted in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note.  All of these factors seemed to lead to an inevitable collaboration with then-upstarts Pearl Jam for 1995’s under appreciated album Mirror Ball

Despite a generation gap (Neil is at least 20 years older than any member of Pearl Jam), the combination proved to be a match made in grunge heaven.  While Crazy Horse had long been the perfect complement to Neil, a full-throttle mid-90s Pearl Jam’s intensity brought an updated type of energy and noise to Neil’s trademarked brand of muscley, fuzzed-out folk.  There is a distinct lack of barn-burning rockers (for that look no further than the “supergroup”s incendiary 1993 MTV Music Awards performance of Rockin’ in the Free World), but the understatement only enhances the brooding introspection smoldering beneath Pearl Jam’s onslaught.  

Mirror Ball is a scorcher from front to back, but the undeniable centerpiece is slow-burning epic I’m the Ocean.  Inspired by a drive Neil took through the streets of Los Angeles during OJ Simpson’s murder trial, I’m the Ocean depicts a stream-of-conscious type succession of images and thoughts.  Through vivid flashes of imagery we drift from scene to scene, to be acknowledged but never truly made sense of.  Described by Neil as a “slice of confusion”, he spends the song’s verses ruminating on a number of things; from love had and loves lost, to his own misfit status, to the struggle of homeless veterans, to the all-consuming media.  No answers are offered, and no questions are really asked, the world just continues to transpire with nothing to be done about it.  

Even as a seven-plus minute song that is essentially the same beginning to end- one rhythm, one chord progression, and in a sense one long verse- I’m the Ocean never once feels boring.  As it smolders its way through ideas and observations it seems to gain momentum solely through its poetry, building up towards... something.  That something doesn’t come in the expected form of a grand catharsis or boiled-over rage, but rather through emotional transcendence.  By the end of the song our narrator chooses to embrace his minuscule role in the inevitable flow of life, choosing not to fight against the chaos and confusion of the world, but exist among it all and let the experience wash over him.  The simple declaration “I’m the ocean…” at the songs climax is not aggressive or dismissive, just accepting.  

In the words of Neil Young himself, “There’s nothing you can do but hang in there and keep on going”.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Comedy of Horrors, Part One: The Funniest of the Scary

Although they seem like polar opposites, there are a lot of intrinsic similarities between the genres of horror and comedy.  Both mine their appeal from very basic elements of the human psyche, fear and humor respectively, located at opposite ends of the same spectrum of emotion.  The reason why people enjoy being scared so much (when not actually in any real danger, of course) is because psychologically it provides the same type of excitement as a good laugh.  Naturally, many of the most enjoyable films classified as horror are the ones that manage to achieve that scare factor while simultaneously having a sense of humor about themselves.  The purpose of this year’s Noisepaper Halloween Series is to celebrate those flicks that find their audience laughing just as much as cowering behind squinted eyes.

For this first installment I’d like to focus on what I consider the “funniest scary movies”.  The following are horror films through and through, but have the great benefit of humor thrown in.  They are all rooted in stand-alone scariness, but never at the sacrifice of good fun!

1.  Evil Dead II

Sam Raimi broke new ground in 1981 with the original Evil Dead, but it was 1987’s sequel/remake that established the gold-standard of horror-comedy.  While the original found indirect humor in its over-the-top violence, it was always played straight as a horror film.  The followup retained all of the no-holds-barred terror, but reveled in its ridiculousness to the point of obliterating any barrier between scary and funny.  

A huge contributing factor of course is lead character Ash’s transformation into reluctant action hero.  In the original he is presented as a somewhat dweeby unlikely survivor; but by the halfway point of Evil Dead II he is a chainsaw-armed (literally), one-liner spewing demon killing machine of questionable sanity (but unquestionable awesomeness).  Bruce Campbell carries much of the film all by himself, and provides nearly all of the laughs via slapstick physical acting and hilarious reactions to the incomprehensible horror unfolding around him.  

Although the first film is unnecessary to understand the sequel, it does provide a recommended lead-in.  The first act of Evil Dead II basically re-caps previous events, but wastes no time getting into the real action as the screams, gross-outs and laughs pile up at breakneck pace and never let up.

Greatest Moment:  A mentally-broken Ash laughs manically along with the cabin’s possessed taxidermy.

2.  An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London is the only film on this list that I watched for the first time without realizing that it was a horror/comedy.  At the time I had no idea who director John Landis (of Animal House and Blues Brothers fame) was, and I went in fully expecting a straight-forward monster movie.  As it turns out, An American Werewolf in London plays as if Landis himself didn’t know whether he was making a comedy or a horror film, giving it a quirkiness that somehow benefits both sides of its personality.

As a stand-alone horror movie, American Werewolf.. is an incredibly worthwhile watch.  The vaguely ominous “werewolf country” atmosphere of the moors (which college-aged backpackers David and Jack are warned to avoid by some of horror’s best examples of the ‘gatekeeper’ archetype) is superb, and the legitimately scary initial attack scene pays off with some impressive gore effects- especially by 1981 standards.  From there we are treated to some of the most satisfyingly well-placed jump scares, more gore, and most infamously the incredibly gruesome can’t-look-away transformation sequences.  These qualities alone make American Werewolf an instant classic of the monster movie subgenre, but Landis is just getting started…

What brings An American Werewolf in London to unforeseen heights are the (many) splashes of comedy uneasily juxtaposed against the blood and carnage.  The two leads are entertaining characters from the beginning, but post-death Jack is really one funny dude.  After being killed on the moors, his cadaver makes periodic visits to Dave, dryly warning him that he needs to kill himself to avoid becoming a werewolf.  He still talks like a cocky college guy though, and his matter-of-fact attitude only increases along with the rotting condition of his body.  As a viewer, just like Dave, you don’t know when or where he’s going to show up (or how decayed and mangled he will look this time); but you know he’s going to have the same hopeless message and a snarky wiseass way of delivering it.  His existence at the story’s periphery gives the whole film a vibe that persists throughout, lightening up even the most violent scenes.  

Greatest Moment:  You can pick any of Jack’s visits, but I’m partial to the way that what should have been a super depressing anticlimax is directly thrust irreverently into the upbeat doo-wop of Blue Moon.  Jarring to say the least, in the best possible way.

3.  Re-Animator

In a movie that plays like a macabre roller coaster ride with mad scientist Herbert West at the controls, Re-Animator takes the dark humor of Evil Dead II to absolutely psychotic levels.  In 1985 this film was ahead of its time as a winking tribute to the genre.  The plot is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, which he had written as a parody of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  The theme music is a ramped up take on Psycho’s trembling and screeching strings, and the character of West could have come right out of a comic book.  

That being said, what pulls everything together is that overall this is just a well-executed funny AND scary horror flick.  The characters’ motives become bafflingly dark as the bodies pile up and things spiral out of control into sci-fi weirdness, but the film never goes meta.  The director and audience are laughing, but these characters never realize how hilarious the parade of carnage is- and that is exactly what makes movies like this so much damn fun. 

Greatest Moment:  The "head" sequence...which is indeed everything that it sounds like.

4.  Stitches

Stitches is a relatively little known British-Irish gem that thankfully was brought to a wide audience via God’s gift to movie buffs; AKA the almighty Netflix.  After being harassed by a group of kids during a birthday party performance that ends in his death, Stitches the Clown returns from the grave to unleash karmic vengeance on the now-teenagers that once wronged him. The unabashedly convoluted story of an undead clown out for revenge, Stitches hits all the right notes as a horror-comedy cult classic in the making.  

The horror is of course derived largely from the grotesque imagery of the clown, portrayed by English stand-up comedian Ross Noble.  Clowns are creepy, serial killers are scary; combined they make for a horror goldmine that rarely seems to be done right.  Stitches does it right.  This clown (even before his zombification) is dirty, more than a little bit rough around the edges, of deplorable personality, and oozing with psychotic tendencies.  Upon rising from the grave he drops any facade of harmlessness, becoming a wisecracking slasher unlike anything seen on film since the heyday of Freddy Kreuger.  

Of course clowns are also an age-old icon of comedy, and Noble absolutely carries this film in the laugh department with his killer one-liners and the laughably disturbing glee with which he dispatches his victims.  Despite his rampage of increasingly inventive kills (more on this in a bit), Stitches retains his persona as a bumbling idiot, never making things easy for himself and leading to many opportunities to break out his “fockin’ ‘ell” catchphrase.  And about those kills- good ol’ Stitches takes full advantage of his arsenal of makeshift clownish weaponry, treating the audience to some of the most creative and darkly hilarious death scenes this side of the Final Destination series.  

Greatest Moment:  Without spoiling too much, characters meet their fates via the likes of balloon animals, helium pumps, and ice cream scoops; all callbacks to the ways that they picked on Stitches during the opening birthday party.  My personal favorite is an utterly masterful bang-bang sequence involving a particularly sharp umbrella.   

5.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2

The first sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre got a lot of semi-deserved flack for the complete 180 it took into horror-comedy territory, but really, where was there to go in following such a nihilistic exploitation masterpiece?  To its credit TCM2 pulled zero punches; when the very poster for the film features leatherface and family in a full-on Breakfast Club parody, you know exactly what you’re in for.  

While there is a sense that this sequel intended to capitalize on the huge amount of implied violence of the original, rather than falling into the trap of trying to one-up the disturbing factor (a temptation that this generations regrettable batch of sequels/prequels/reboots succumbed to) TCM2 instead makes caricatures of the cannibalistic Sawyer family; turning them into a band of larger-than-life lunatics.  Nowhere is this better exemplified than the character of Chop-Top, the motormouthed madman cousin of the previous film’s “hitchhiker”, portrayed perfectly by Bill Mosely (using a persona he would go on to revisit in Rob Zombie’s modern throwbacks House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects.)  

What ensues makes, in hindsight, for a bizarre parody of 80’s movie excess.  This is a flick that verges on cornball with its bright colors, elaborate set-pieces, mouthy characters, and of-the-times soundtrack.  The progression of lead character Stretch says it all, as she goes from charming southern belle to helpless victim to badass ‘final girl’.  She even manages to make Leatherface fall in love with her (yes, you read that right) on her way to full-blown anti-heroine status.  Her triumphant chainsaw dance during the final shot isn’t only a callback to the original, it also brings to mind John Bender in an almost too satisfying case of coming full-circle.  

Greatest Moment:  Leatherface’s movie-opening kill to the rockabilly soundtrack of The Cramps is brilliant, but I can’t help but go with Chop-Top’s introduction at the radio station.  Dog will hunt!!

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