Obscure Things That Everybody Should Know About

Fantastic Planet

Imagine a nature documentary crossed with the paperback cover of a science fiction book from the sixties and dump it out in a puddle of East-European surrealism. Something comes together here with such astonishing clarity, it could so easily collapse into cheesy nonsense, and by all rights should, but somehow never does. There is no way to describe a scene from this film in a way which captures the alchemical potency of its construction.

There’s a scene in which two people strap toothy dinosaur-type creatures to their chests and duel with them. There’s a scene where the people of the burrow pair off to mate, their coupling represented by a scattering of firefly lights in the brush. There’s a scene where the big blue aliens who keep humans as pets send out a wide array of people-killing devices into the public park to hunt down and exterminate everybody hiding there. There’s a scene where the alien’s consciousnesses are transferred to a bunch of blue and red orbs that float across space to a planet of immense ivory statues so they can dance together.

Now that I’ve told you that, will you believe me when I say that these scenes are among the most beautiful and frightening and magical things I have ever witnessed?

The animation is gorgeous, it has a minimalist timeless quality to it. It seems grown or found rather than made, like something ancient unearthed. The music is strange and hypnotic; it works on a level beneath conscious thought. The story is strange and frightening and primal, uprooting the essence of life with casual ease.

This is a story of nature, vast pitiless nature – a chilling antidote to the slack-jawed impositions of order on animal existence which one might find in dross like March of the Penguins. This is a story which puts humankind back into nature, and shines a light on how thin, how arbitrary, is the line we have chosen to imagine between nature and civilization.

There’s nothing like Fantastic Planet anywhere. Go watch it.

Velvet Hammer

Scrawl is one of those bands that should have been huge in its niche. Not Michael Jackson huge, more like Pixies huge. I think it would have been, too, had they been a bit less unlucky. Ah, what could have been.

Among all the fine records they left behind, however, Velvet Hammer strands out as the clear gem. This beautifully crafted album is of such devastating emotional potency that it’s hard just to listen to it. Anybody familiar with the Afghan Whigs will recognize lead singer Marcy Mays from the astonishing song “My Curse,” the emotional centerpiece of Gentleman. There is a great deal of that track’s raw power here, but most of the songs on Velvet Hammer have more of a feeling of weariness and resignation. Where Gentleman is cathartic in its naked heartbreak, Velvet Hammer is the opposite, it’s brooding and introspective, a heavy emotional weigh hidden in lushly minimal songs. This is an album which is so powerful as to be almost dangerous.

To tell the truth, I don’t really know how to categorize the music itself. It’s powerful at times, with an aggression and speed that sounds like it would be at home on a punk rock album. On the other hand it’s got a slower and more melodic edge to it that reminds me of something like the Gun Club. Mays’ guitar is shimmering and searing, anchored by Sue Harshes brilliant bass work. Anybody familiar with American Indie music will immediately recognize the Steve Albini production, harsh and quite by turn in a way that highlights every instrument simultaneously.

The lyrics are uniformly excellent: sorrowful without being self-pitying, angry without being hateful, sarcastic and ironic without being bitter. Songs like “Your Mother Wants to Know” and “Face Down” and “Prize” deserve to be classics. Maybe someday people will give Scrawl the attention they always deserved. One can only hope.

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