Joshua Strawn is the vocalist and one of the guitar players for Vaura. He is also one half of Azar Swan, the new mutation of doom folk outfit Religious to Damn. He has been a longtime collaborator with Wierd, helping behind the scenes with the label and releasing some of his music with them. For more information, check out http://www.facebook.com/VAURAofficial and http://www.facebook.com/AzarSwan.
1. 2012 REDUX:
My Most Listened of 2012 list includes everything from Rosenkopf to Santigold to The Chromatics, but a few things stick out as worthy of note. Scott Walker's Bish Bosch completely delivered on every high expectation I had. When pressed I usually name Scott as my favorite artist of all time. His music has the bizarre effect of pushing me towards pure pop because there's this part of me that feels like if you can't do dark, experimental, and fucked up as well as he can, just don't bother. Death Grips lives up to every bit of the hype, manufactured or not, as do both of their 2012 releases. Kendrick Lamar probably made a masterpiece -- good kid, m.A.A.d. city is moody, melodic, and engrossing. The Weeknd's Trilogy was given a label release and is, to my ears, pretty much the continuation of Massive Attack's Mezzanine only with singer that's got the voice of Michael Jackson and a lifestyle culled from Bret Easton Ellis books. If Abel Tesfaye was English and didn't hang out with Drake he'd get more love from the underground, I guarantee it. And I know she terrifies People of Discerning Taste, and I get that because even to me some of her tracks sound like they are commercial jingles, but the fact is Ke$ha's Warrior has some great moments that don't sound like commercials,they sound like really well-written anthemic pop songs (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjYs0F9DYw8). I've explained my philosophical reasons for embracing Ke$ha previously (http://www.cvltnation.com/cvlt-nationartist-to-artist-interviewstodd-pendu-vs-vaura/) and this record makes me feel as if she must have been paying attention (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMF_mdtDJQo). Parents in middle America are far more terrified of a pentagram, inverted cross wielding Ke$ha, extolling joys of the flesh, booze, and the beauty of life in the here-and-now than they are afraid of any black metal band.
2. KISS THE ANUS OF A BLACK CAT
KTAOABC's WELTUNTERGANGSSTIMMUNG belongs in the above redux as well but gets special mention all its own because sometimes you find bands you wanna evangelize for and champion. This is one of those bands for me. Maybe due in part to their name, but probably due more to the fact that the band members don't really have Coachella ambitions, KTAOABC does everything they attempt brilliantly, and yet seem always to fly under the radar. Their earlier folk influenced work outdid every just about every neofolk pioneer. Their 2010 release, Hewers of Wood And Drawers of Water should have roped in every fan of indie garbage like Iron and Wine and indie genius like Shearwater, but it didn't. I curated a night of music at Wierd when the band was in town on holiday -- we coordinated a small acoustic performance that blew everyone's mind. Then they put out WELTUNTERGANGSSTIMMUNG, which sounded as if the vibes of Wierd had stuck to their heels and followed them back to Belgium. Stef's vocals and lyrics and impeccable sense of songwriting, juxtaposed with cold wave instrumentation have made this a record I keep going back to over and over.
As Religious to Damn slowly morphed into what is now Azar Swan, I found myself looking less and less to the standard dark, mystical female performers I had grown up with and paying a new kind of attention to stuff like Sade (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8W0ZWXq6kxE), Teena Marie (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XeihHgyAxE), Whitney Houston (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AElYRkVxkJY) and even a few select Miami Sound Machine tracks (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3A7CVrBFC7M). In that vein, I also discovered Dalbello. I'd imagine most readers of this blog know Queensryche's single from Rage for Order, 'Gonna Get Close to You,' but fewer probably know that it was originally written and recorded by Lisa Dalbello (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-e-lZekd2Y). Mick Ronson (of David Bowie/Lou Reed fame) took her under his writing and production wing for whomanfoursays, and goes crazy with the Fairlight in ways previously only Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush had (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlIbhY4jB-w). The emotional and tonal range of her voice gets the perfect backdrop, making this record, for me, something of a lost classic (our singer is a girl with black hair, though, so no matter how much of my production is influenced by Dalbello or Kanye West, and no matter how much Zohra's songwriting is influenced by Phil Collins, everyone will say we sound like Siouxsie and Kate Bush anyway).
4. PHILIP PULLMAN
I've not read every last page of the His Dark Materials trilogy, but I've read most of it. With a little girl on the way in February, and with my dear friend and one-time teacher Christopher Hitchens having passed from the world this past year, I foresee a future articulated in terms of Lyra. I spent plenty of years fighting, trying to destroy things I felt worthy of fighting against and worthy of destruction. I don't regret any of it, but the future now is about creation, and Pullman's instincts, ethics, and imagination make for a brilliant way of going about that. Encourage curiosity, respect children's childhood while not sheltering them from realities. Allow children, and the human race in general, in the process, to grow up. Treat the Magisterium as the dangerous enemy it is, but don't fail to treat the individuals that comprise even its leadership, as beings worthy of dignity and love. Good stuff.
5. RENE LALOUX, BELA TARR, TI WEST, & ROMAN POLANSKI
The filmmakers that, in one way or another, influence most things I do creatively.
6. IMMERSIVE THEATER: SLEEP NO MORE & BLACKOUT HAUNTED HOUSE
I have to give full credit to my friend Russ Marshalek of Silent Drape Runners for not only turning me on to this stuff but for making it possible for me to attend both events. Sleep No More and Blackout Haunted House are both site-specific theater experiences in New York and they can be both costly and somewhat exclusive. Sleep No More is Macbeth played out in an antique hotel. Think Barton Fink or life-size Brothers Quay plus baphomet orgies and public hangings. The actors do scenes on a loop, and you walk freely throughout the multiple levels of the venue wearing a mask. You can't speak to anyone, but you can touch anything. Sometimes the actors interact with you -- my wife (then girlfriend) was taken into a room for an entire scene which played out exclusively for her. This is also the venue where I heard Bish Bosch for the first time at the official listening party.
Blackout Haunted House is a twist on the tried and true seasonal haunted attraction, but you sign all kinds of waivers, you go in alone, and basically get assaulted, harassed, and provoked for 20 or so minutes.
7. AMERICAN HORROR STORY
I love horror films, but I don't believe in the supernatural. That makes it really hard for me to be actually frightened by horror films most of the time. Even though American Horror Story deals in the supernatural, and even though its M.O. is basically soap opera horror for the Internet era (i.e. EVERYTHING AT THE SAME DAMN TIME: PSYCHOLOGICAL MARITAL STRIFE, SCHOOL SHOOTING, EVIL ASS GHOSTS AT THE SAME DAMN TIME), it totally worked on my head and made me feel uneasy walking into dark rooms alone.