Thursday, March 24, 2016

AUSTRALIAN AVANT-GARDE CLASSICS: THE NECKS – HANGING GARDENS


  The Necks - Hanging Gardens


   For almost 30 years now, Australian trio The Necks have been pursuing a singular methodology: process-oriented improvisation unfolding within the interstice of jazz and minimalism. Their seventh album Hanging Gardens, released in 1999 on their Fish of Milk label and then internationally two years later on ReR Megacorp, is an exemplary display of pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer/guitarist Tony Buck’s collective gestalt. Its single, hour-long title track is a logical culmination of the direction set by their 1989 debut Sex, a concluding thesis of groove-based jazz before the incorporation of post-rock textures and reductionist silences on Aether, Mosquito/See Through and Chemist. With the release of their new album Vertigo, there’s an extended tendency towards drone minimalism apparent in Mindset and Open; enhanced spatiality inundated with a colour density akin to Spectralism's expanded palette. Their approach to process is no less fecund as it encompasses pure sound over rhythmic structures.

The Necks: Left to Right - Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck.

   The inspiration of Miles Davis’ Electric groups permeates Hanging Gardens, an influence palpable since their second album Next (1990), the off-kilter On The Corner swagger of ‘Nice Policeman, Nasty Policeman’ in particular with its McLaughlin-esque guitar stabs and avant-funk keyboard figures. Buck’s drumming mesmerizes in Next’s Latin American-flavoured epic ‘Pele’, shifting patterns of metronomic rhythm suggesting a dreamy fusion of Temptations hand claps and Tony Williams’ ‘It’s About That Time’ backbeat. By the release of Aquatic in 1994, groove had morphed into submarine glide, primary bass and keyboard themes creating soothing shapes like bands of dappled light amongst coral outcrops. Space-riddled minimalism infused the 1998 soundtrack of the suburban crime drama The Boys with claustrophobic tension; a perfect aural complement to the film’s opening shots of bare light bulbs in empty hallways. Stylistic properties in oppositional balance coalesced in Hanging Gardens: the gravitational force of repetition versus the levitation pull of ethereal texture. Among this group’s most satisfying releases, it boasts an internally consistent style that embraces other scenes; a millennial summation of the era’s more promising musical pathways in hiphop and electronic dance music.

Miles Davis in his Electric period, early 1970s.

   The Necks participated last year in an international series of concerts commemorating the release of Discreet Music, Brian Eno’s landmark 1975 album. Hanging Gardens’ lapidescent amalgam of stasis and transformation has a parallel in ‘Iced World’, a track from the ambient pioneer’s 1997 cyberjazz release The Drop. Buck’s drumming is livelier and more busily polyrhythmic than the gentle locomotion of Eno’s programmed ride cymbal and simple bass pulse, but the two pieces similarly crystallise a luscious anxiety. Subtle music built of basic elements, constantly alternating between prosaic repetition and ecstatic illumination.

Bran Eno, June 2008.


   Mathematician John Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ computer program and its aesthetic implications - simple rules that produce complex results - found sublimation in Eno’s music and infiltrates The Necks’ by osmosis. Abrahams’ rudimentary piano/organ/synth patterns, Swanton’s protozoan bass and Buck’s rhythmic palpitations gain elegance in combination. Interaction becomes a lattice, writhing with iridescence; properties that would seem unsophisticated in isolation acquire an alluring gleam, music that unfolds over the length of an hour has the durability to enthrall over that distance.

The Necks at The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, February 2010. Photo by Nick Carson.


   The trio was heading in a more elemental musical direction, but rhythm and melody is crucial to Hanging Gardens. Buck’s frenetic, breakbeat-like drumming is reminiscent of the halcyon days of jungle techno, the aura of Elysian euphoria surrounding Goldie tracks like ‘Sea of Tears’ from Timeless. The Necks recreate something of that sense of hearing a new futuristic jazz, digitally enhanced and turbo-charged, but also those paranoid moods of entrapment that darkcore producers conjure with their jittery recombinations of the Amen break. Abrahams’ stately piano theme, the track’s melodic highlight that first enters at the 22 minute mark and then again at 47 minutes, has a pop sensibility that seems spun as much from the 80s jazz-lite songbook of Joe Jackson as the regal touch of Bill Evans’ chord progressions. As a stalwart of the Australian pop scene, the pianist is no stranger to the tunesmith’s trade, having brought his skills as a player to bear with charting acts like The Whitlams and in songwriting partnership with singer Melanie Oxley. What startles and gladdens about the theme as it materialises is a matter of context: melody sounds adrift here, resonating on the horizon like a mirage promising balm to a traveller moving with futile speed along a vast, asymptotic curve.

   The Necks also seem to draw inspiration from sampladelia’s elevation of loop and juxtaposition. There’s a similarity of results to sampling process rather than the boom-bap schematics of hiphop: selecting a moment that contains the most piquant qualities of funk or soul in a track, looping it and bringing it into conjunction with the disruptive element. The paradigmatic reference here is that alluring snatch of bluesy Isaac Hayes piano thrown into a cauldron of scratchy disjuncture on Public Enemy’s ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’. The Necks bring together both in real time and studio overdubbing what could be a succession of such looped moments, but subjected to gradual change in live performance. Swanton’s bass alternates throughout between a unifying one-note pulse and tumbling cycles of transitional phrase that hint at forward thematic motion without fully delivering. Something magical occurs when an organ motif wreathed in glowering Leslie speaker/wah-wah ambience, its cadence redolent of the noir milieu of the trio’s The Boys soundtrack or Larry Young’s ‘Khalid of Space’, is juxtaposed with the gentle optimism of Abrahams’ piano theme. The former is no less menacing, the latter no less conciliatory, but their alignment accentuates their psychoactive qualities, like interstellar matter with diverse origins on an orbital spiral into a black hole, radiating with greater ferocity as drawn nearer to singularity.
The Necks - L to R: Tony Buck (drums), Lloyd Swanton (bass), Chris Abrahams (piano).


   The willingness to engage with formal elements from pop and techno as well as minimalism sets The Necks apart from other jazz practitioners. Consider music released by Barry Guy, Evan Parker or Marilyn Crispell through such labels as ECM and Leo in the late 90s. Beautiful, exploratory work much of it, but from a more rarified milieu, the hermetic tradition of free improvisation. By embracing fundamental melody, drone and the loop, The Necks’ music sounds more open-aired and just as open-ended.

   The trio has drawn fire from purists for this repetitious simplicity, but such criticism only raises deeper questions about the inherent subjectivity of musical appreciation and the perception of genre. Isn’t one man’s dumbing down another’s discovery of wit in concision? Does self-indulgence or lack of taste exist in prolonged displays of extended technique just as much as scalar noodling? Jazz as category has always entailed hybridity as well as reverence for tradition: from its foundational syncretic bonding with elements of classical, blues and other folk forms, through Schullerian Third Stream, fusion and Chicago Underground post-rock participation, with minimalism as another evolutionary bud. The trio operates between poles of hypnotic repetition and micro-melodicism that have already been validated by such luminous forerunners as Terry Riley and Steve Reich. And regardless of their collective origins, is it accurate to strictly label The Necks a jazz group, any more than it is to apply that descriptor to an outfit like Kammerflimmer Kollectiv, whose propensities towards ambient and noise mirror zones Chris Abrahams has explored in his solo work? All that matters in the end is that performance and structure, composed or improvised, engage the contemplative faculties - emotion and imagination. It’s music of fluid boundaries and vortical fascination that makes Hanging Gardens an essential entry point for nascent post-everything aficionados, just as Miles’ psychedelic fusion albums were in the 1970s.


 © Copyright Jonathon Kromka 2015

Monday, December 28, 2015

Magma's 'De Futura' - French apocalyptic prog in excelsis





"I don't always listen to 'De Futura' in the morning before I go to work, but when I do, I lose my job." This comment from a fan who's posted the Magma track on YouTube is presumably meant in jest; it certainly raised a chuckle of recognition from this fellow musical traveller.  There's such euphoric rage in bassist Jannick Top's composition - an intolerance for routine, conformist patterns - that you could certainly imagine a receptive listener, one perhaps fuelled by illegal stimulants, responding to it at day's beginning with employment-threatening enthusiasm.  Scope out the media sharing site for a clip made by the late documentary filmmaker Michel Parbot from a live performance of 'De Futura' at the Hippodrome de Pantin in 1977; along with the definitive version of 'Köhntarkösz' from Live/Hhaï (1975), one of the French progressive rock group's finest moments.  In this truncated, but still devastatingly effective version of the 18-minute track from Üdü Ŵüdü, you'll find enough of the bridge-burning attitude hinted at in the poster's comment to inspire a whole statute book of Platonic censorship.  It's also a neat synthesis of the musical and visual facets of this group's paradigm-disrupting agenda.

   Magma were unique in the progressive music landscape of the 1970s for the epic scope of leader Christian Vander's conceptual vision.  A multi-album science fictional sequence, with its own invented language of Kobaïan, it makes oft-referred to examples of prog excess like the Yes and Genesis double concept albums Tales from Topographic Oceans and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway seem lacking in ambition.  A reconfiguration of standard rock instrumentation also set them apart.  Keyboards and guitars, vehicles for virtuoso heroics in other contexts, are assigned a more textural or rhythmic role.  Bass is often the foremost instrumental voice while the group's vocalists draw on a fusion of the operatic and choral traditions of Wagner and Orff, jazz scat projections and soul shouts to convey the melodic themes.  Rock's visual dynamics are similarly reoriented in Parbot's video.  Klaus Blasquiz may be the main singer at the front of the stage here, but there's no doubting drummer Vander is the head shaman.  Those who can't get on this music's aggressive wavelength might find his manic intensity subject for ridicule.  If you can, it's thrilling to see an artist so completely in the zone, so absorbed in organised sound as a magnet for spiritual energy.

Christian Vander
Christian Vander



   Ardor in performance is well served by a masterful combination of dramatic close ups and the highlighting of surreal contrasts and non-sequiturs.  Vander's shots are often juxtaposed with the other drummer Clement Bailly like some Apollonian-Dionysian double act.  Bailly's face is a model of steely self-possession, accentuated by authoritarian moustache and shades under a protopunk mohawk; Vander's a shifting portrait of grimaces, grand mal twitching and wild-eyed, ecstatic entrancement, his limbs flailing at the kit with frenzied, but unerringly accurate abandon: what Iggy Pop might have become if he'd stayed behind the drum kit and not allowed his raging id an entire stage to prowl on.  Cutaways to the female backing vocalists show them swinging their arms to this thuggish, Dante-esque funk as though it was the latest bubblegum pop hit.  The clip's final switch to pulsating strobe is intercut with photographic stills from the world's trouble spots.  Starving African children and Viet Cong prisoners follow upon subliminal flashes of Vander's haunting strobe-lit stare and the girls air drumming, as though psychically linked to their leader's visionary state, over a synthesizer's air siren-like wail.  Visual metaphors perfectly matched with the music's apocalyptic fervor.  It's one of the best music videos of the 70s.

magma.jpg



   Magma's style of rhythmic complexity and operatic drama has given rise to the genre of zuehl whose chief luminaries such as Ruins have in turn extended its influence into the realms of math rock and progressive metal.  The building of tension common to these genres through the cognitive destabilisation of rhythmic asymmetry has its origin in Magma's driving force, but there's an emotional remoteness in much of the math rock genre outside of Slint and Don Caballero's more Beefheartian currents.  By contrast, Vander drew inspiration for his highly spiritual music from his personal hero, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and the American soul of Motown and James Brown. A gradual evolution is discernable from the early albums (Kobaïa1001º Centigrades) which mixed chamber jazz-rock in the style of Frank Zappa and Soft Machine with proto-Laibach totalitarian chanting and military marches out of Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for The Battle of Algiers.  By the time of K.A. the group were still cruising over similar warm two-chord vamps as Third-era Softs. Köhntarkösz saw the introduction of avant-funkier elements that found their most gloriously malign expression in 'De Futura'.  The two-part, 30-minute title track's dense canvas of glistening Fender Rhodes patterns and paroxysmal rhythms suggests Miles Davis' electric period, a music whose psychedelic globalism had the blues as its spiritual core.  Psychedelia teased formal mutation out of traditional blues for other artists in the late 1960s as well.  The version of Howlin' Wolf's 'Smokestack Lightning' from The Howlin' Wolf Album (1968) extends its core riff beyond the original's tight cycle within a standard metric boundary into a rambling, serpentine form.  The more typical, sleazy blues-funk motif that comes in later in 'De Futura' is like the 'Smokestack Lightning' original of the more steeply contoured anti-melody.  Elongated syntax over suspended groove is given even more baroque form in this primary theme, a sci-fi synth motif as iconic as Pierre Henry's 'Psyche Rock' has become since its evocation in the title tune of animated television series Futurama, and as filled with jaunty dread as Miles' 'Black Satin'.

   It took someone who was part of the Magma body corporate but not its leader to write 'De Futura'. The way it intuits the utopian-dystopian dialectic in Vander's Kobaïan mythopoeics and finds churning expression for its irresolvable frustration (Jannick Top appropriately named his later solo project Infernal Machine) suggests a lieutenant's objectivity rather than a commander's investment. In previous Magma albums, expressions of spiritual elation and optimistic joy are often undercut by angst and unease.  Sonic depictions of Herculean struggle are rewarded with hallelujah choruses, only for the celebrations to be invaded by snarling goblins.  There's a constant uncertainty in this rhythmic urgency - an expression of elan vital or the death drive?  Its dualism has never been more perfectly sublimated than in 'De Futura', whose knotty guitar and bass riffs are like math problems that nag at the conscience as well as the intellect.  Of the zuehl groups that followed, Ruins invested this concept of music as tricky equation with a manic, hyper-cartoonish vibe that readily found a home on John Zorn's Tzadik label.  Only Shub-Niggurath went all the way into its darkness, forming a link in Messiaenic angularity with atmospheric black metal on Southern Lord.

Üdü Wüdü


   Vander's vision of humanity's future struggles towards spiritual awakening, with its bizarre depictions of messiahs who urge on mass suicide, has attracted its share of fascist accusations.  It has a sensibility formed in an understanding that the battle for supremacy between fascism and democracy is an ongoing one; not consigned to history, but continuing in each individual psyche.  His narrative for Magma is too convoluted and eccentric to interpret it as an attempt to expunge the historical stain of Vichy collaborationism as it's possible to hear an exorcism of the Third Reich's unquiet geist in the darker side of cosmic krautrock (i.e. Neu!'s 'Negativland' with its modern-day jackhammers unearthing stone tapes of Nuremburg rallies; the ghastly punning title of Amon Duul II's 'Soap Shop Rock' and the music's supernatural threat and Wagnerian digressions; Can's Tago Mago - surely one of rock's great concept albums of the unconscious - with its Vodoun rhythms rendered with relentless martial precision, its Crowleyian world domination incantations floating in echo so spatially vast as to suggest the psychoacoustic equivalent of cosmic background radiation). Nevertheless, Vander's music contains enough multivalent scope to render it as timeless in its emotional appeal as these other worthy examples of troubled 70s progressivism.

(C) By Jonathon Kromka. 2015

Friday, August 2, 2013

BEN WHEATLEY'S KILL LIST: A CRITICAL APPRECIATION








Some genres, like crime and horror, have a relationship so symbiotic they intertwine like helical strands in cinema's DNA. Common cinematographic elements like low-key lighting and asymmetrical compositions have their origins in German Expressionism, a movement that shone chiaroscuro light on the macabre and the subaltern. There's a common patrimony for existential themes and oneiric logic in Franz Kafka's magic realism. The publication in 1978 of William Hjortsberg's novel Falling Angel saw a more reflexive blurring of stylistic boundaries, paving the way for a Satanic supervillain like Keyser Soze to invest Bryan Singer's crime film The Usual Suspects with Gothic menace.

Like Angel Heart, Alan Parker's 1987 adaptation of Hjortsberg's novel, the 2011 British thriller Kill List has its protagonist increasingly unhinged as he's drawn under the influence of dark conspiratorial forces. But director Ben Wheatley goes beyond noir pastiche in his pan-generical approach, rendering army veterans turned contract killers with contemporary verisimilitude. This stylistic conglomeration isn't a Loach-noir mash-up, nor a period piece as effective as Hjortsberg's rendering of the tropes and cadences of Raymond Chandler, but a strong contemporary story, stylistically multi-layered yet unified in effect. The film achieves a rare claustrophobic power for aligning social realism with a philosophical core of horror usually neglected in favour of genre conventions like giant monsters, sexy vampires or the ubiquitous living dead.

Neil Maskell's portrayal of hit man Jay builds on a menacing persona he started fashioning with Wheatley in the BBC comedy series The Wrong Door and further developed in Nick Love's The Football Factory (2004). In the great cinematic tradition of the baby-faced psycho, his boyish features act as a palimpsest for wounded expression, something prematurely aged and fractured lurking behind the eyes. (His portrayal of Arby in Dennis Kelly's conspiracy theory TV series Utopia is like a combination of Jay and a lobotomised office worker character from The Wrong Door. Another great character, but Maskell's in serious danger of being forever typecast as the psychotic hitman if he isn't careful.)

The film opens with Jay in the middle of a vicious dispute with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring, an alumna of The Wrong Door). He's been unemployed for eight months and the family (Jay, Shel and son Sam) has gone through their savings. He says he's got a bad back; she says it's all in his mind. He could be any male provider in recession-hit Britain: worried about his occupational limbo and impending destitution, increasingly alienated from his family - a source of pressure as much love and support for him. His best friend and business partner Gal (Michael Smiley), a fellow Iraq War veteran, comes to dinner one night with new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) who's been told they're travelling salesmen. Shel, also ex-army, is the manager of what's really a contract killing operation. Their last failed mission in Kiev has sent Jay into a spiral of depression, probably the real cause of his job shyness. We never learn what happened there, but there are suggestions a child was killed. 







































Jay is persuaded to return to work, but not without one last defiant outburst. As a response to Shel and Gal's jibes about his negligence of filial duty, he overturns his still food-laden plate on the dinner table and pulls the table cloth out with a sarcastic "Abracadabra!" Its childishly off-hand, almost unconscious aggression; a frightening revelation of Jay's mental instability. He's like a puppet of his own emotions. 

Their new client (Struan Rodger) knows about the Kiev mission and insists on sealing the contract with his and Jay's blood. Gal suspects they've been working for their new employers for some time under different guises when he discovers files in the homes of the hit targets containing information about their activities. There's an unreal contrast between the anonymity of the settings in which they go about their work and the targets' puzzling familiarity with Jay. All of them seem to welcome their deaths and thank Jay for the honour of being dispatched by him. 

These plot details create an atmosphere that unsettles exponentially, an affect complemented by Laurie Rose's cinematography; as hyperreal and skewed a perspective on Britain's urban and rural environments as the work of Rob Hardy, Igor Martinovic and David Higgs for the Red Riding trilogy. Deserted suburban landscapes, wind energy props lazily spinning, evoke Michelangelo Antonioni's cinema of alienation. A rainbow's arc spans the screen, radiating surreal menace. Wheatley incorporates other semiotics that act as clues to occult conspiracy, just as author Ira Levin and director Roman Polanski used the contemporary detail of the 1966 Time magazine 'Is God Dead?' cover in a doctor's waiting room to suggest a wider anomic milieu in Rosemary's Baby. In Kill List, there are intertitles for each of the hit targets - The Priest, The Librarian, The MP - that conjure up social archetypes and the nomenclature of Tarot cards. 

Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley are often referenced when the film enters weird fiction territory, but there are more contemporary parallels. Horror writer Ramsey Campbell's black magic realism similarly encompasses paranoid schizophrenic revenge killers (The Face That Must DieThe Count of Eleven), evil cults (The ParasiteThe Nameless) and subliminal connections between urban decay and the supernaturalBritish genre filmmaker Philip Ridley's Heartless (2009) set out with a promisingly Campbellian mise en scene (the orange glare of sodium street illumination, graffiti-lined underpasses, nightmarish figures half-glimpsed in the windows of abandoned houses). But Ridley's preference for the played out trope of the Faustian bargain, territory better handled by Hjortsberg and Parker, felt like a betrayal of promise. Kill List is the most effectively Lovecraftian British film since Clive Barker's Hellraiser. Its hand-held realism reflects the assimilation of the American writer's documentary technique in the Blair Witch Project/Cloverdale/Quarantine/Apollo 18 'found footage' tradition. Its lingering connotative tension has a match in the atmospheric density that Campbell achieves in prose.
JK Potter's photomontage illustrations for Ramsey Campbell's The Face That Must Die

In his cultural survey Danse Macabre, Stephen King categorised H. P. Lovecraft as a writer of 'outside' horror': his mythopoetic pantheon of demonic Old Ones are vast, pan-dimensional beings, capable of destroying the human race in the fulfillment of some obscure agenda with far greater ease than we annihilate other terrestrial species in the pursuit of our interests. This tradition taps into fears of the unknown that are as old as the religious impulse itself. King contrasts this with the 'inside' horror of aberrant psychology as explored in the works of Thomas Harris; a literary sub-genre that stretches from Robert Bloch's Psycho to James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. 'Outside horror', in King's reading, deals with externalities over which the characters have no control and therefore needn't feel any complicity. 'Inside horror' deals more with moral issues of free will, the choice of evil over good. 

King has incorporated cosmic horror elements effectively in his own fiction, notably in 'The Mist' and It, but his Providence idol's oeuvre isn't suited for this critical dichotomy. Lovecraft wasn't just a fantasist, but also a 'deterministic materialist' whose grim universal stance was informed by evolutionary theory and space-time relativity. His protagonists don't just experience their horrors in the form of some transcendental Kantian Sublime, as Bradley Will has it, but realise them immanently as well, as Gilles Deleuze knew. For Lovecraft there is no clear separation between inside and outside, between subjective will and objective reality; they're attributes of the same materiality, its ultimate nature unknowable and utterly alien. 

The cult that manipulates Jay and Gal is either peopled by deluded adherents of a sociopathological neo-pagan groupthink or that belief system is real within the film's fictional borders. Jay's character is a dualistic synecdoche for political or supernatural influences. His exponential mental destabilisation can symbolise a parallax diffusion of power and violence, one of multidirectional volition and shifting agency, as well as a paranormal traversal of ontology. 

In Lovecraft and Campbell's fiction, supernatural force is more often than not intimated; the reader senses its influence in the description of setting or character behaviour rather than manifested in action. The only significantly magical element depicted in Kill List is the occult symbol that appears with the film's opening credits and drawn by one of the characters on the back of Jay's bathroom mirror. Nevertheless, there's a cosmic menace. Jay may be cracking up from a combination of psychological factors: lingering damage from wartime experience; whatever happened on the Kiev mission; financial pressures. But what manner of gateway is that symbol's harsh geometry intended to unlock?





































Wheatley's bold lack of exposition allows the viewer to experience the characters' perspective and something of their predicament, pulled along by the undertow of circumstance and conspiratorial machination. Kill List's eerie sound design enhances this effect; there are moments of aural dislocation that recall another Warp Films production, Shane Meadows' Dead Man's Shoes. Sound keeps the film's vertiginous shifts in genre seamless, its tonal momentum organic. One of the recurrent motifs in Jim Williams' score is atonal whistling: a potent signifier of psychosis. For horror fans, its spookily evocative of the mad piping made by the acolytes of Azathoth, the blind idiot god - Lovecraft's metaphor for the random forces of evolution.  

Supernatural horror and political metaphor fuse in Kill List against a background of economic catastrophe, fertile ground for what Slavoj Žižek calls the 'parallax nature of violence.' In his Living in the End Times, the Czech philosopher argues "an economic crisis which causes devastation is experienced as uncontrollable quasi-natural power, but it should be experienced as violence." The GFC spreads waves of its own mutating brutality, just as an avalanche of social and political repercussions saw the Great Depression transform into World War Two. This metamorphosing energy can manifest in directionless criminal activity like the 2011 London summer riots. Or entrepreneurial offshoots of the shadow economy like Jay, Gal and Shel's contract execution business. Human resources specialist Fiona, a paragon of the official economy and all its bureaucratic dissemblance, tells them there's a lot of "dirty work" to be done in a recession. Gal jokingly calls her a "hatchet man", but she assures them there's nothing personal in her duties when out 'de-forcing'. Jay asserts it is nothing but personal for the families of the employees whose jobs she terminates. The fear of unemployment is raw for him, a personal abyss he doesn't dare stare into.


Jay's gradual absorption into a conspiracy of violence - his agency undermined by forces both seen and unseen - recalls the fate of Warren Beatty's investigative reporter in The Parallax View. The symbolic centrepiece of Alan J. Pakula's 1973 political thriller was a short film the undercover reporter has to watch as part of his training to become a corporate hitman. A semiotic montage of still photography and comic book panels depicts cycles of oppression and heroic vengeance. In a feat of symbolic paranoia beautifully reflective of the movie's fractious time, this film within a film is a psychic map of America: a deterritorialised maze of violent, ego-driven impulses. Hideous snuff pornography discovered in The Librarian's lock up seems intended to engineer a psychotic reaction in Jay. Gal has to look away, but Jay is transfixed, his tortured features twisting in the monitor's reflected light. He goes off-list to target the video's producers, triggered into action by a violent collective hatred of those who would disseminate such detestable material. There's a transition from helpless depression during his period of unemployment to increasingly unhinged retributive agency as working hitman. He justifies the act to Gal as rough social justice; but does he also need to redirect perverse feelings the video has provoked?

Camped out on the MP's estate as they prepare for their final hit, Jay sounds genuinely forlorn when he tells Gal he doesn't understand where the anger inside him comes from. Its a scene that registers as political metaphor for the internalisation of parallax violence, invisible until seen from the proper vantage point. It's also a signpost for the film's supernatural undercurrents, foreshadowed by the unsettling juxtaposition of childhood reverie and slow-motion flames as Jay and Gal dispose of the pornographers' remains. 

Casual political conversation during the dinner party implies a wider nexus of moral decay, of social progress set in reverse. In a discussion about the recession and 'de-forcing', Jay raises the Nazi regime's readiness to eliminate 'extraneous' social elements, foreshadowing his rationalisation of off-list activity. His isolation may be palpable, but in no way do we feel his are isolated views. Every parent can sympathise a little with his expressed desire to exterminate all child molesters. But there's phenomena conveyed within such a statement that offend liberal conscience: the 'taking out the trash' argument of right-wing vigilantism, the race-to-the-bottom moral posturing that passes for political debate by shock jocks or the virulent bigotry often visible in internet commentary; what sociologists call the online disinhibition effect in overdrive. A pervading sense emerges of a dystopian polity on the rise, poised to grant utilitarian equivalence to Jay and Gal's execution service and the death squads of police states. 

The Nazi reference also evokes, within the film's wider thematic structure, a mythology that evolved in the latter half of the twentieth century around the Third Reich's fusion of totalitarianism and the occult. First disseminated in Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwel's The Morning of the Magicians, it's a popular trope in James Herbert's novel The Spear, Campbell's The Parasite and Spielberg and Lucas' Raiders of the Lost Ark. Politico-occult evocations reach their zenith in the pagan ceremony Jay and Gal discover on the MPs estate. The ritualistic hanging of a young woman dressed in pound notes carries echoes of the Californian occult site of Bohemian Grove, that obsession of radio host Alex Jones. For him the yearly gathering for the Sacrifice of Dull Care is a Luciferian ceremony, symbolising the freedom of political and financial elites from social conscience. 








































































The worldwide web's viral spiral amplifies a millenarian zeitgeist. Lars Von Trier's Melancholia (another cinematic highlight of 2011) reflected hysteria generated by Internet doomsday groups around Earth's orbital rendezvous with Planet X/Nibiru and the significance of December 21, 2012 in the Mayan calendar. Paranoid conspiracy theories about the Illuminati seem to underline Kill List's intimations of a corrupt elite exerting demonic control over an atomised society. 

Melancholia had its own transgression of outside and inside boundaries: Justine's misanthropic depression finds its wish-fulfillment in the titular planet's collision course with Earth. Apocalyptic denouement unfolded at a measured pace, the relativistic scale of cosmological force looming over family drama. Kill List's speedier narrative pacing and jump-cut editing suit an even darker eschatology. Psychological desolation hurtling through a serrated continuum of cinematic time. A nightmare plunge into a moral void something like Michel Houellebecq's crystallisation of Lovecraft's vision: the delineation of "universal laws of egoism and malice."






Wheatley, in writing and editing partnership with wife Amy Jump, is a filmmaker with considerable skill in being able to pull at several different affective strings in his viewer at once. It's this emotional dimensionality, exemplified in character ambiguity and wry humour, that keeps a bleak film like Kill List from being as dispiriting as the preceding exegesis might suggest. Jay and Gal may be a couple of murderous thugs, but they're also funny guys and as affectionate as their damaged psyches allow.

Canny musical choice is also integral to this director's method. Wheatley's cult cool credentials were boosted by the use of classic krautrock as extra-diegetic music in his next film Sightseers (the opening bars of Neu!'s 'Lieber Hoenig' as repeated motif and a kind of theme tune for one of the characters is an appealingly strange touch). Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'The Power of Love' was used in a crucial moment with obvious ironic intent, but there's the hint of a romantic sensibility behind the jest. 

Joan Armatrading's 'It Could Have Been Better' plays on Kill List's soundtrack when Jay and Shel attempt to reconnect after the dinner party's ructions. It's an emotional ballad suitable for a film that up to this point has been a form of domestic drama. But this scene represents more than just a lull in marital conflict and the song takes on a powerful elegiac quality. It's a lament for England's social contract (a major theme as Wheatley and cast have emphasised) and for all its post-traumatic stress disordered war veterans and economic refugees. A moment of fragile, shared empathy, illuminating the movie's darkening psychological terrain with almost Gnostic intensity. 

(C) JONATHON KROMKA 2013