Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review: Porta Vittoria - Summer Of Our Discomfort

And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat
- Selena Gomez

And that is exactly what I’ve been doing since getting my copy of Summer Of Our Discomfort by Porta Vittoria two weeks ago. I had ordered the album from Old Europa Café as a happy accident. I was originally intending to purchase an album by another artist on the OEC roster, but figured I would try and get the most out of the shipping costs and support Rodolfo by ordering another album. I randomly checked out the linked videos to Porta Vittoria’s “Sad Lieutenant G.D.” and “Your Trash, My Treasure” and was immediately hooked. I took the gamble, bought the album, and have been extremely pleased. I have not listened to much else since receiving it.

I've been looking forward to doing this review since getting the album and rocking out to it non-stop. I am going to do something a little different with this review than I did with Miel Noir review and that is to do an analysis on Porta Vittoria’s music videos. For a twelve track album, five songs have videos, all made by the band themselves. That tells me the videos are quite integral or important to the experiance and not just for promotional purposes. Doing the Miel Noir review was tough, since I am not too proficient in the language of music. However I am quite adept at looking at the mise en scène and analyzing films. One of the goals of this blog was to spend a little bit of time furthering my scholarship in Italian film studies after doing my thesis on Antonio Margheriti, so I’ll consider this Porta Vittoria essay part of that goal as well.


None really – I just love their music and videos

General Overview and Packaging

Porta Vittoria is a new band to the scene, with Summer of our Discomfort being their debut album, just released this past summer. The band is a duo, made up of Christian Ryder and Lisa Duse, both filling in a myriad number of roles.

Describing the sound of Porta Vittoria is difficult, since they do not fit in the normal neofolk/military pop/martial/neo classical mold. The description for the album at the Old Europa Café website describes the sound of the band:

[Porta Vittoria] combines high class sounds from different genres and cultures moving between noise and classic, jazz and blues, electronica and ambient: a musical globalism for modern incompatible societies. But most of all Porta Vittoria deliver a true "Mediterranean pop".

The Google+ biography of the band describes their sounds as:

Defined as a "global rétro-avant-garde", Porta Vittoria has its roots in the combination of sounds from various genres and cultures, in order to conceive a musical globalism in modern incompatible societies.

When I think of the term “retro avant garde” I think of Laibach and how they describe themselves as “retro futurism”. Both Porta Vittoria and Laibach have a lot in common in this regard. While Porta Vittoria lacks the industrial, bombastic, and martial elements found in Laibach, both band are idiosyncratic in their sound, but have a continuity that draws on kitsch, retro, with some added deconstructive-ism. I hate to tag Porta Vittoria as a post-modern band, since that is label that has been overused for the last few decades and many would argue that we are actually in an unnamed post-post-modern age (some would say post 9/11, but I believe that to be pandering to Americanism). However with their subversion of kitsch elements and retro sounds, Porta Vittoria definitely fits the attribute.

I am not sure about the term “Mediterranean pop”. When the word “pop” is suffixed to a non-geographic noun, such as synthpop, bit-pop, military pop, electro-pop, etc. – it does sound like it’s own genre. However when “pop” is suffixed to a geographic noun, such as J-Pop, K-Pop, and so on, it sounds like popular music from Japan or Korea or wherever. The music is definitely avant garde, and its neofolk/martial qualities (and ergo inclusion in this blog) is mostly guilty by association by being part of the Old Europa Café lineup.

I am not sure what Porta Vittoria is, but what they are is different and they sound good.

Summer of our Discomfort (personal collection)

The release proper is in a glossy digipack with booklet and sticker. The booklet has some nice aesthetics to it in terms of typeface and layout using the white space. However what space they do use is unfortunately wasted by using lyrical excerpts instead of the lyrics in their entirety. The lack of full lyrics is near criminal since I am unable to follow along with the lyrics 100%. Both Christian and Lisa sometimes sport some full accents and some words can hard to identify to an English speaker such as myself. They both sound lovely singing, but not being able to follow along does dampen the experience. This may have been mitigated if the band had their own website and posted lyrics in their entirety. Here is nice gem of lyrics in the booklet for “Concrete Island”:

Yes, you are. 

But alas, in the age of Facebook, access to a band’s lyrics is the exception and not the norm. 

Track by Track & Video Analysis

World Crashing Down

The Summer of our Discomfort opens with a synthpop inspired track. The first half of the song Lisa provides the ethereal vocals, lamenting the bleak words that “we’re getting neurotic from chemical waste” and our “existence is wasted in an assembly line”. The music is key/piano-esque driven and mellow with a nice beat. At the half way point of the song the vocals stop and the music picks up. The song becomes faster and more grandiose, and in a way, optimistic. A counter to the song’s first half that was more misanthropic in lyrical content. The song is saying that the world sucks (crashing down!) from a variety of over stimuli, but we will be ok in the end. 

Thematically, if I had to compare this song to another song, it would be “Kein Problem” by Melotron:

Jeder weiß, dass der Kanzler ein Lügner ist
Und dass Vasallen bis zum letzten Tag marschieren
Jeder weiß, dass die Front sich verschoben hat
Und dass Helden nicht wirklich existieren
Jeder weiß, dass der Krieg längst entschieden ist
Und dass die Guten stets verlieren

Alles kein problem…..

Verdict – Good song

Official video from the Porta Vittoria YouTube profile

The video begins with a window shot of a lake before showing Lisa in a red one piece, hosiery and boots reminiscent of flight attendants during the golden age of commercial aviation post WW2. She stands amidst glass buildings and business parks, but are void of other people save herself. Footage of her singing is juxtaposed against other found or stock footage. It’s mostly in black and white, but it is various clips showing cities, buildings, factories, machines, science at work, signs, traffic, construction, etc. This all looks to be footage from industrial shorts and educational films. When combined together the footage takes on a City Symphony quality. If you’ve seen Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) or the more well known Man with a Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov, then the resemblance between those films and the first half of “World Crashing Down” is apropos. These retro clips do tie into the “retro” aspect of Porta Vittoria perfectly.

At the halfway points of the song, Lisa not only stops with her singing, but steps out of the video entirely, leaving only clips montaged together the carry the video’s narrative. In this latter half of the song, the clips are now drawing from different sources: B-sci-fi and horror flicks, pornography, experimental shorts, cult classic movies and Japanese hentai anime. While I wish I could identify which Hentai they are from (I see no naughty tentacles, so I suspect we are not in Toshio Maeda’s La Blue Girl or Urotsukidōji territory) I can identify some of the other clips: a dissected alien from Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction (1995), a red flying demon from Dennis Muren’s Equinox (1970), Dorothy and her red shoes from The Wizard of Oz (1939), Ray Harryhausen’s Kraken from the original Clash of the Titans (1981), a giant chainsaw wielding Nazi from the Australian action-comedy series Danger 5 (2012), Pee Wee Herman from his eponymous children’s show, a spaceship from This Island Earth (1955), and the unmasking of the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

To further compound things, these clips are also edited into nature footage of mountains, clouds, canyons, flowers, sunsets, glaciers, desertscapes and rolling sylvan fields. It’s almost as weirder and more bizarre the clips get, the more serene and tranquil the nature footage it is juxtaposed against gets. Sergei Eisenstein would be proud of the feeling of unrest delivered from the edited clips in contest with each other. The film ends on the shot of a rustic cabin by a lake before returning to the window shot of the lake that the video started with, in essence bookending it or a return to normality. With this being the final shot, it seems in the contest of over stimulation (the crashing hectic world) and nature, nature comes out triumphant.

Moments We Have Stars in Our Eyes

A sad song, with a melancholy piano with occasional subtle ethereal flairs. Percussion with a minor jazz element picks up a third of the way into the song, giving it a cinematic quality.  Christian provides a subdued choral refrain that is a on the introspective side. The song ends with the music picking up in a resolved way – sad, but happy at the same time.

Verdict – Good song

Official video from the Porta Vittoria YouTube profile

Some men are breast men. Some look at butts. An hourglass figure for some. Or maybe that nerdy look in scenester glasses. Me? I love stockings and hosiery. From pinup girls in garters to burlesque dancers in thigh-highs. A woman in stockings grabs my immediate attention. So it is with a bit of discomfort that when I look at the video for “Moments We Have Stars In Our Eyes” that I feel my fetishism of women in hosiery belittles or offends this rather somber and serious video in Porta Vittoria’s repertoire. However, I’ll take some solace in that Christian has definitely shot and edited this film to accentuate the two female protagonist’s stocking clad legs, so maybe I shouldn’t feel ashamed at all. In a way, the stocking fetishism almost recalls a Tinto Brass like quality to the work (except less ass shots) who despite his subject matter, made sure to make his beautiful actresses even more beautiful, and that is definitely going on in this video.

This video, along with the video for “Sad Lieutenant G.D.”, has a distinct narrative going for them. However this video has the most subtext and is extremely multifaceted. The short narrative of this story is two women in love with each other rendezvous and take their own lives together by overdosing on sleeping pills. The black and white photography is not dark enough to be a noir, but it still adds a somber element to the story. The tragic love between the women recalls David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001): both this video and Lynch’s film depict a lesbian relationship in a humble and emotive way, but ultimately tragic.

There are some interesting and subtle moments in this video. In the beginning, the blond lady wakes up in a large bed alone. She looks over to the other side and even puts her hand there. We are not sure who should be occupying this portion of the bed. Perhaps she is in a relationship with another, probably a man? She has been waiting for him to leave for an extended period so she can receive her female lover?

I suspect this is strongly the case and the bed is not shared with her female lover. The black haired lover is actually en route to the blond woman’s apartment via train and long walks and carries her luggage with her. Halfway to the apartment the black haired lover abandons her luggage to the streets. This is a critical scene in many aspects. Firstly, if she lived with the expecting blonde beauty, she would’ve carried the luggage to her destination – their house. The luggage has wheels so it’s not a hindrance at her travels. Instead the abandoning of the luggage is metaphor for the black haired woman leaving her doubt of taking her life behind. Another way to put it – if you’re going to commit suicide with someone, you don’t pack luggage for the weekend. You don’t pack at all since it’s going to be a one way trip. She had her luggage because she was not sure she was going to go all the way, she could stay a while and then leave. Her having her luggage shows she had doubts of dying with her lover, her leaving it shows she is committed.

Another subtle aspect of the video is the complete lack of other people. The black haired woman traverses the train station, parks, plazas, and streets and there is no other soul to be found (one car does drive by in one scene, but I write this off as a fluke or accident since every other shot in this video has been meticulous to show no other person). In this world only the blonde and the black haired women exist. They are literally all alone but  together. It could be their relationship has put them in this situation. The world does not want them and offers no other people for them to be with in any capacity, so they leave the world together as lovers.

The video also depicts it is Christmas time, with snow and publicly decorated trees. A time usually devoted to spending time with your loved ones, but also a terrible time to be alone.

The two lovers do not commiserate their relationship with sex prior to taking their lives. Instead they talk to each other, gently touching, caressing, kissing, and finally overdosing on pills. In a way it shows that their relationship is much more tender or truthful. You can have sex and not love that person. But you don’t touch/interact with someone the way they do in “Moments We Have Stars in Our Eyes” without being in love with that person.

Kaziglu Bey

Kaziglu (sic) Bey means “Lord Impaler” and was the moniker attached to Vlad the Impaler by the Ottoman Empire. Vlad is more commonly associated as an inspiration for Dracula, but he was more infamous at his time for his skirmishes against the Ottomans during the 1400s and his signature motif of impaling his foes.

Porta Vittoria’s song takes this route of analyzing Vlad. “Kaziglu Bey” is an instrumental proper, with a real brooding synth riff, slight militant percussion with some ethnic instruments, chimes, and a wind instrument that I cannot identify. It definitely has a Middle Eastern feel to it. The song also has some sound samples incorporated into it, which what sounds like rattling chains and swords being unsheathed. “Kaziglu Bey” is atmospheric and eerie, while remaining accessible for normal listening.

Though the song lacks lyrics, the album’s booklet contains a excerpt penned by Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu that glorifies the deeds of Vlad.  

Verdict – Good Song

Official video from the Porta Vittoria YouTube profile

The video for “Kaziglu Bey” takes its cues from the video for “World Crashing Down” in that it is a montage of edited clips from other sources. Unlike “World Crashing Down”, the band has not edited themselves into the video and it exists solely as black and white clips depicting life in the Middle East decades ago, with a specific call out to Jerusalem. Onlookers gawk at a shackled bear on display while Hasidic Jews bow in the shadows. A shepherd herds his flock of goats into a village, old men gossip, and people mill about the markets and stone buildings. The clips also contain footage of a fictional representation of Vlad himself and ends with him overlooking a field of impaled people.

There are political overtones here. Perhaps a response to the recent turmoil in Turkey with all the protestors being injured (and worse) by their government? Perhaps a call for Vlad to come back and dispose of the corrupt Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan? Unfortunately, political science is not my forte and I don’t think I am qualified to assume the political stances of Porta Vittoria based on one song.

Fire in the Boudoir

Acoustic guitars carry this track as Lisa and Christian take turns singing. This track is how defunct Belborn would sound if they upped their production and incorporated other sounds into their folk sound. This is the most neofolky track on the album and it’s executed well.

Verdict – Good song

Guenther Lause Ist Nicht Bekannt

If Summer of our Discomfort has a low point, it is unfortunately this track. All the other tracks on this album have complex layers of music, sound interesting and great vocal delivery. This track is unfortunately on the boring side. Lisa’s vocals suffer here – and are especially disappointing after seeing her impressive delivery on other tracks, particularly “Your Trash, My Treasure”. The music sounds disjointed, like pieces of other songs stitched together. It doesn’t have the fluidity or cohesion that the other gems in this album do.

Verdict – Worst track on the album

Concrete Island

You want house music? In their idiosyncratic approach, Porta Vittoria approaches the house genre of music with this track and pulls it off quite well. The beat is catchy without going full house/rave/techno. In fact, it’s more “chill” than “groove” in the beginning, and perhaps the samples of oceanic waves crashing in the background of the music gives it that feeling. The latter half of the song picks up the bpm and turns to full on danceable track. 

The lyrical representation of this song in the booklet is hilariously bad however (see above).

Verdict – Good track

Death in Venice

“Death in Venice” begins as a lounge track, with some heavy cymbals action and sparse piano work. Definitely a piece to sit at a small round table, drink in hand as you take in a smoky atmosphere. The vocals say “I can’t take my eyes off you”, so the setting could very well be in a lounge watching an attractive performer.

However, at the half way point the music shifts genre and becomes a shoegazer track, reminiscent of the Canadian band Faunts (particularly their Feel.Love.Thinking.Of album). The lounge music is dropped and instead has some dream-pop or light space rock/electronic quality to it. Both Christian and Lisa deliver soft, almost whispered, vocals to which the music compliments well. 

Verdict – first half decent track, last half good track

Captatio Benevolentiae

This track starts off eerily, with words spoken in reverse and pulsing noise that sounds like cues from Dark City (1998). After the this introduction, the song starts proper with a mix of piano and jazz work. There is a small element of space rock too hidden in some of the synth riffs. The sax elements give it a bit more bourgeois feeling, and I can just imagine a glass of bubbly in my hand.

Verdict – Good song

Sad Lieutenant G.D.

The first song I heard by Porta Vittoria which lured me into their claws. If there is one track on this album that sums of Porta Vittoria’s sound, and defines them as a band, I would posit it is this track.

“Sad Lieutenant G.D.” is a fun and catchy track that has a lot of different sounds going for it. Sometimes festive sounding, sometimes western. Sometimes folky and sometimes even a bit of light rock. Lisa and Christian take turns singing, giving the song an even more multifaceted feeling. There’s a section at the 2:15 mark that makes me think of Derniere Volonte on their later – pop-ier albums, so I am going to go with that in trying to equate this song to something tangible. I don’t have the capabilities to even suggest where the sounds are coming from, so I will not even try. Let’s just leave it at it is complex but great song.

Verdict – Amazing Song

Official video from the Porta Vittoria YouTube profile

Of the videos from Porta Vittoria, “Sad Lieutenant G.D.” has the most narrative going for it. There is a definite story, start to finish, and it fairly accessible to watch.

The setting of the video appears to be a post-apocalyptic setting. In a way, “Sad Lieutenant G.D.” recalls the filone of Mad Max and Escape from New York clones that Italy was churning out in the early 1980s: 2019 – Dopo la caduta di New York (1983), 1990: I guerriere del Bronx (1982), I nuovi barbari (1983) and many others. Lisa portrays the protagonist in this video – her bullet belt and black western attire recall a mixture of The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s westerns and the Vault dweller from Fallout 3.

The video starts off with Lisa surveying and then leaving a smoldering battlefield. The carnage no doubt caused by her, and in a way, the smoking fields harkens to the fields of impaled bodies shown at the end of the video of “Kaziglu Bey”. Perhaps Lisa is as ruthless as Vlad himself?  She looks serious, but contemplative as she sits aside a lake and wanders its shore.

She happens upon a funeral procession manned by mourners in tattered clothes as they carry a coffin. And who would the deceased be? The cowboy hat atop the coffin that matches the one draped on Lisa’s back provides insight in that she is probably witnessing her own procession.

Her travels next take her to an abandoned building in the middle of a canyon that has two grave markers, one clearly marked as “unknown”. After much pacing about the grounds, Lisa deals herself cards from her tarot deck, briefly shown earlier in the video as she sat at the lake. The tarot cards make me think of Italo Calvino’s story Il castello dei destini incrocitai in which characters tell their story via tarot cards to each other. I suspect Lisa is trying to write her own destiny: she probably has killed many people (as alluded to in the opening shot), but seeing images of her own funeral processing and the grave of the unknown (which probably contains her remains), she deals from the deck hoping for a better fate than the one she is destined. She has more visions of a skulled faced woman that she draws her pistol upon. It is this brief encounter with a symbol of death that Lisa decides not to fire. Instead after consulting with a speeding clock (signifying her time is rapidly coming to a close) she discards her gun, deciding a more pacifist route is perhaps in order. She ascends into the snowy mountains. Looking defiantly at the mountain summit, she discards a final tarot card – that of a skeletal corpse - and ascends to her fate. 

Le Reve Et La Vie

A serious sounding track, it has the same atmosphere that “Kaziglu Bey” does, it puts you at unease. There is a definite military sound to this song without going overt military-pop. There is some “chanting” of sorts that makes me think of an medieval army getting equipped for a sortie along with some aggressive pushing of a piano note. A slight electronic-noise pops up in the background now and then that sounds chiptune-ish.

Verdict – Good song

Your Trash, My Treasure

Easily the best song on Summer of our Discomfort, just barely beating out “Sad Lieutenant G.D.” for this honour. While “Sad Lieutenant G.D.” greatly sums up Porta Vittoria’s style, range, and abilities, this cohesive song shows them at them at top form. The song is pure jazz and lounge bliss. Lisa’s vocals are sultry, confident, and seductive and her English with enunciated just right. The lyrics are clear and easy to follow without textual aid and are catchy and memorable. The production professional and spotless. The jazz element puts you directly into a Robert Rodriguez flick.

The song is a take on the adage of “another person’s junk is another person’s treasure”.  I find one of the important lines in the song to “I feel myself completely different from you”. It takes the trash/treasure dichotomy to the extreme, that the difference in how two people can perceive what is important/valuable is so great that they can lose their own commonality or even connection. I also connect with the line about “bad taste being great to you” since it affirms my own passion with exploitation/genre/populist cinema, the type of films shunned by many movie aficionados.

Verdict – Amazing song

Official video from the Porta Vittoria YouTube profile

The second video I saw for Porta Vittoria, and what sealed the deal for me to take the plunge with their album.

The setting for “Your Trash, My Treasure” is among abandoned factories, warehouses, and rooftops that have fallen into ruin, slowly being overtaken by small trees and other foliage. The setting has the same post-apocalyptic elements found in “Sad Lieutenant G.D.” and it would not be too farfetched to say they take place in the same world or are canon to each other. The video also has ties to the message and clips from “World Crashing Down” in which that video nature re-establishes its dominance on the over stimulus world. “Your Trash, My Treasure” seems to show this relationship of nature and modernity as well.

Lisa makes an appearance in this video as does Christian himself who has been absent from the other videos. Both play a more omnipotent role for the narrative, singing to the listener/viewer as they traverse the hallways and lots of the industrial ruins. The stoic nature of Lisa from “World Crashing Down” and “Sad Lieutenant G.D.” has been replaced by a sultrier demeanor, which complements the lounge/jazz elements of the music. Christian looks uncomfortable and nervous.

The third protagonist of the video is an unnamed woman who disrobes, runs among the ruins nude until settling on some debris of circuit boards and wires that she turns into a rudimentary bikini.  You would think after seeing the pornographic and hentai clips from “World Crashing Down” and the stocking clad women from “Moments We Have Stars In Our Eyes” that this character would be even more sexualized. But the exact opposite is true. Though she is nude, her actions don’t sexualize her. She goofily sits atop of items, wobbles around, makes weird faces. If anything, her character is more of a nymph, dryad, or some sort of sylvan creature, frolicking through the foliage of the ruins. Her body is in its most natural state (nude), and even lacking in unnatural attributes: tattoos and plastic surgery. So for her, she explores the debris looking for curious and having a bit of fun.

Christian explores the ruins, taking in its nooks and crannies. Lisa however finds something to treasure amidst the rubble – a giant bull skull!

That’ll look good up on the wall.

Cosmic Melancholy of the Thinking Ocean

The final track of the album. Not exactly ending the experience with a bang, but not with a whimper either. It’s a decent enough track, but after the amazingness of the preceding tracks, “Cosmic Melancholy of the Thinking Ocean” is a bit anti-climatic. The song starts off as space-synth track, like a subdued, less poppy Galaxy Hunter song. It finds some footing at the end with the addition of Lisa’s vocals and ends better than it started.

Verdict – Decent track

Final Thoughts

The only sour note for this release is the lack of lyrics in the digipack. The craftsmanship of the music and production values, the range of music stylings that work in tandem with each other, the fun songs and the serious songs, along with the accompanying videos on YouTube make this an impressive debut release. I look forward to their next release!

Both bands I’ve reviewed so far, Porta Vittoria and Miel Noir don’t categorize easy into neofolk and martial tropes. But like the band Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio which flirts with other sounds, I think bands of this ilk challenge or make fluid the barriers of these genres. 

As for me, this was a good review to do. I felt more at ease looking at the videos than I did with the music proper. However I do hope I gain a bit more proficiency with the music analysis department as this blog goes on. 

Cultural References

B-films, nature, Vlad the Impaler

Official Links

Other Resources

No comments:

Post a Comment