26.3.13

Steph Swainston

I don't read a lot of contemporary fantasy, but that won't stop me from proclaiming Steph Swainston as the all-conquering lord and master of the genre. Her writing is obv a product of her influences (Mervyn Peake, M. John Harrison, William Burroughs) but also presents a singular vision, with all the author's obsessions, grudges, quirks and daydreams jostling for space within. Sounds a bit all over the place, but it works because Swainston is a) super smart, and b) good company. Her prose is precise and witty, and she's very playful with the narrative voice. I've just finished the third book in the Castle series, where the first person narrator Jant confesses to the reader that he has fallen off the wagon: "But that was my only lie. Trust me." Which is great because for most of the book, the P.O.V. is very immediate and unfiltered, and to zoom out and start questioning the veracity of everything we've read is a lovely little twist. When the Nolans tried it in Inception, I balked, but this works because the move acknowledges the relationship Jant has built up with the reader. Like the characters he interacts with, we almost become a part of the story. Also, and this is super geeky, but I do delight in the little easter eggs which are buried in the text: a stray reference to the protagonist in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, the pet Triskele in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (I'm sure there are others).

In fact, what the stories in the Fourlands and the Shift represent is nothing less than a very detailed topology of the author's mind. Sure, all books are like that to a degree, but with Swainston you get the impression that there are very few rationalizations involved (I'm thinking of MiƩville particularly here). Nothing feels forced into shape, what we're getting are direct messages from the emotional and imaginative life of the author. The Insects which plague these worlds, devouring all organic matter and covering the landscape in white paper, seemed to me to be a kind of impersonal, all-consuming virus or cancer eating away at the flesh of the human imagination. Now I've read Lovecraft, the Insects also resemble a metaphor for the horror of a callously murderous universe. In fact, a chapter in The Modern World is devoted to the different ways the characters face up to the fact of a godless existence. Ultimately, the Insects may originate in a childhood fear transported into the paracosm Swainston created when she was little, and their unstoppable force can serve as a stand in for any overwhelming, relentless opposition we face as we fight through our lives. They could be anything. They are certainly really fucking scary.

I'd heard that Swainston had given up on the author business, which felt like a huge loss. Just checked now and she's interacting with fans on twitter and writing again – in fact she's written loads! Hopefully we'll be able to see some of this new material published, and Swainston will eventually get the adulation she deserves.

24.3.13

El Topo

Jodorowsky is full of bullshit, but that doesn't mean his work is worthless. I loved The Incal not because it made any kind of sense (because it totally doesn't). It's a journey over destination kinda deal. Seriously. That comic was inspired by the tarot, and it works as a tarot deck – a heap of symbolic images to which YOU supply the meaning. Similarly with this film – you don't watch it, it watches you. El Topo mashes together myth and pulp into these fantastical and allusive scenarios. And (very important, this) it's a compelling watch. Narrative drive is created not through a central mystery or problem, but by a long series of small set-ups and pay-offs confronted by the protagonist, one symbol, challenge or character replacing another.

The jumbled mess that spools out is gathered together at the beginning by the idea of 'The Mole' tunneling through the darkness and being blinded by the light: a version of Plato's allegory of the cave in which the form of the good remains inaccessible to humanity. The film is divided into two halves, like the Bible, and the first half is pretty Old Testament. The Mole and a naked boy (Abe and Isaac?) abandon childish things and walk into a violent world full of freaks and gangsters, where eyes are taken for eyes in silent inevitability. You can't rely on anyone in this state of nature, as the boy finds out. The Mole's superpowers keep his new girlfriend Mara alive, but she wants more – the best. The Mole cheats his way through the challenges and surpasses the master gunslingers, heart turning to metal in the process. Meanwhile, Mara's narcissism, rebuffed, turns into masochism, and The Mole is crucified and abandoned.

Like the New Testament, the second half of the film is more boring and easier to parse. Jodo's use of homosexuality / disability / cross-dressing to suggest deviance in the first half may look suspicious, but the mutant villagers in the second I think show that his attitude towards 'the Other' is one of sympathy and delight rather than disgust. Indeed, the romance between the re-born, resurrected El Topo and his new girlfriend is really quite sweet. The decadence of the village looks to me like shots taken at American culture – racism, religious enthusiasm, middle class hypocrisy. El Topo turns into an angel of death at the end ushering in the apocalypse. But rather than reaching an endpoint, the story starts again – its circularity calling attention to its artificiality. Mankind's spiritual yearnings satisfied by tales told over and over again.

Don't know how much of that was in Jodorowsky's head, but the point is: IT DOESN'T MATTER

22.3.13

The Female Eunuch

Characterising oppression as 'castration' is the centrepiece of Greer's argument, and I think its sex-positive thrust is its most valuable contribution to the feminist second wave. But there are difficulties. While mocking Freudian theory as metaphysical, Greer deploys the dichotomy of Eros and Thanatos in articulating her ideal of a liberated, loving society – the former's freewheeling spontaneity preferable to the latter's cold ordering of reality, and you can question whether this unrestrained overflow of "energy" may not lead to chaos and abuse. Moreover, as Elizabeth Wurtzel points out, Greer doesn't shirk from condemning behaviour that doesn't fit her model of virtue. She is particularly insensitive regarding trans and BDSM sexuality, trusting that conditioning will remove these (scarequotes) disempowering desires.

Greer has kinder moments, however. One of the most moving passages for me comes at the end of the book: "We have but one life to live, and the first object is to find a way of salvaging that life from the disabilities already inflicted on it in the service of our civilization". Greer's familiar goal, that women and men are free to construct themselves, includes the familiar difficulty that women must "refuse, not only to do some things, but to want to do them". I don't accept all the "disabilities" Greer diagnoses, and often despair of our ability to escape those I do recognise – those horribly unsatisfying expectations we nonetheless set ourselves to fulfill. Then again, The Female Eunuch's uncompromising vision is a reminder that such self-definition is sometimes possible, if only we had the reserves of will, or "energy", Greer displays.

18.3.13

The Drowned World

As ever, what interests me most about this is the blasphemy. I love a bit of blasphemy, me. Through some rather unbelievable psychoscience, Ballard constructs a scenario by which modern man finds himself back in prehistoric conditions and memories buried deep within our gene code are awakened. As our protagonist Kerans puts it: 'a point might ultimately be reached where a second Adam and Eve found themselves alone in a new Eden'. That prediction proves correct, Kerans himself becomes 'a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun' at the end of the novel.

Rather than meeting his maker, Kerans reaches a state by which all loyalty to civilisation is stripped away and he becomes the human animal. A bit like the one imagined by Rousseau, a solitary creature. His maker is the natural world, and ultimately, the sun – the sole source of life-nourishing energy on our planet.

So we have our indifferent, impersonal God, but who is the serpent in this little fable? (Beatrice, by way of Dante perhaps, plays the part of Eve.) That would be Strangman, but also, it turns out, Riggs. The rapacious pioneer and empire-builder sanctioned by and sustaining the political powers that be. The crazy root driving our towering achievements is here exposed, but the alternative presented by Ballard is equally absurd and terrifying, although he seems to sympathise with the outcasts and their past-smitten rejection of progress.

Rousseau was categorical that going back was not only impossible but undesirable, and proposed measures to restrain and reverse the imperialist mindset. Ballard is (if it's possible) even less sanguine – the only paradise humanity will know is that of the jungle.

16.3.13

Retromania

When Simon Reynolds first started talking about not finding anything absolutely new in modern music, I didn't really know what he was talking about. Not a diss (yet), the revered blissed one has (by my rough calculations) been 'pop aware' for a good 15 years longer than I have. Given that enormous backlog of experience, I wasn't going to start arguing, was I? I just took him at his word.

The failure of Retromania is that I'm still left unsure about what exactly he's on about. The book is correctly characterised on the back cover as a 'debate starter' rather than an open-and-shut case, but for large stretches it doesn't even feel like an argument. In fact, I was taken aback when Reynolds describes Retromania as a 'critique' at the end of the book, since I found it difficult to separate the normative/polemical from the descriptive (and convincing) account of music culture past and present. Retromania is quite messy anyway - jumping around to address a bunch of stuff beyond retro. Reynolds makes clear that the Introduction, which poses a long list of questions, was written first, and that what follows is an exploration of the answers. This gives a good idea of the way Reynolds approached this project, though does leave you to do more of the work of gathering together the mass of stuff you get into a coherent whole. The Female Eunuch, which I'm in the middle of at the moment, is similarly sprawling, but at least Greer bothered to map out how it all fits together at the start.

Retromania gives you a great overview of different ways music makers have engaged with the past. What I'm unclear about is exactly what Reynolds is missing - what his 'nothing new under the sun' actually means. His language is quite loose on the subject - 'forms', 'develompents', 'ideas'. Nothing specific on the sounds or arrangements that provided those future shocks so sorely craved. Instead we get a list at the end, which (perhaps consciously) recalls the apex of 'Losing My Edge' where James Murphy is reduced to shouting out names of bands he's experienced before everyone else. The only definition I could find is more of a 'telltale sign': 'genuinely modernist music' can be identified by the 'pressure it puts on writers to come up with new language and new concepts' - an imperfect measure iteslf, and one which leaves open the possibility that the failing isn't with the music so much as with the writers around it.

In fact, there are unexplored explanations for the sensation of 'nothing new under the sun' (and it's noteworthy how the words 'feels' and 'seems' often prefix Reylolds's most outrageous claims) lurking within the text. The central distinction he draws is: 'a rapid movement within a network of knowledge as opposed to the outwardbound drive that propelled an entire system into the unknown'. But that unknown could just be another network of knowledge that was previously difficult to access but is now easily available. Reynolds talks about how hip hop 'seemed to come out of nowhere fast' in the early 80s, even though its 'historical roots can be traced back to the mid-seventies Bronx'. A modern example of this phenomenon would be footwork - also (I gather) a genre with a rich history but one only unearthed as something totally new and alien by entrepid adventurers in the Night Slugs / Planet Mu camps. Can't the retromania curse just be one of perspective - our vastly expanded perspectives making the shock of the new rarer?

Another, for me more interesting, path not taken is hinted at when Reynolds talks about the 'linear model of progress' being 'transposed from science and technology, where it does apply, onto culture'. Maybe it shouldn't have happened, but actually, why not? When you get right down to it, what is the driver of musical innovation? Forget what Spengler has to say on the matter, it is safest to assume that if you take human ingenuity in aggregate, it would remain a constant through history. What changes is the means of production and their availability. Applied to music, what this suggests is that new 'forms' and 'developments' can ultimately be reduced to human ingenuity ('ideas') being applied to new technology - the expensive electronic experiments of the post-war avant-guard, the recording studio rock of the 1960s, the dissemination of personal computers in the 90s. This latter development has vastly widened the range of possible sounds music makers can create and manipulate, leading to a new normal identified by John Calvert as a stream of constant tiny innovations rather than the surges and movements Reynolds is after.

As important to the 'what is new' question is the 'why is the old shameful' question. This one Reynolds tackles head-on and yet I am still left wondering. In a telling phrase, he describes the way 'music has been depleted of meaning through derivativeness and indebtedness', as if 'meaning' depended on badly-defined notions of 'innovation', 'originality' or 'the momentous'. To be fair, Reynolds is actually a careful and sympathetic guide through the many ways music makers have engaged with their tradition and used the past to generate relevant meanings for their own situation. (A footnote, and btw where the fuck are they in this book: one interesting ommission in Retromania is the 'hardcore continuum' or 'nuum', where 'roots' are as important as 'future'). Point is, he knows very well that 'meaning' in music can be classified in all kinds of ways other than the originality index.

The 'great yearning' for the new is for Reynolds a 'habit of a lifetime' of a 'dyed-in-the-wool modernist', and he leaves it at that. The personal or psychological reasons behind this attitude are skipped over, but I'm detecting a certain post-structuralist whiff around the language of being trapped 'within a network' rather than driving into the unknown. My guess is that Reynolds elevates music above all other creative pursuits for Nietzschean reasons: being fundamentally a non-representational artform, it can plunge beneath surface-level interpretations and articulate the undefinable, the bedrock Real of our existence. Recall Foucault's distress at being bound by language and looking for freedom at its limits - in the pornography of Bataille for example. For Reynolds, perhaps music is the vehicle by which you can escape history and arrive at that final fronteir. To reduce it to just another artform, subject to the same interplay of influences and the same range of intentions would be similarly distressing. And yet Retromania provides a brilliant articulation of just this creative process, and the way it has changed with the arrival of the internet. Accepting this development isn't 'settling for less' - there never was anything more. The future isn't out there, it has always been with us. And our technology has allowed us to create and access it like never before.

11.3.13

2012 blind spot: Bat for Lashes - A Wall

A "sophisticated blend of art-rock grandeur and synth-pop directness" is a nice concise way of describing The Haunted Man. Definitely more continuity between that and Ms. Khan's previous work than I expected, probably because the first single 'Laura' wasn't representative of the album's sound. That song was penned by the guy behind 'Video Games', and I'm not wild about his whole shtick. The rest of the album is more propulsive and anthemic, and feels like a truer reflection of what Bat for Lashes is all about.

When I first listened through, I was readying a quip about how Khan had progressed from epic fantasy to magical realism. But again, there's more continuity than that. Although that eye-catching album cover suggests a Bat for Lashes stripped back, unadorned, in fact the picture is just as carefully composed and symbolically rich as the previous album covers were.

My favourite song is the anthem-not-anthem 'A Wall', its shimmering synth tones suggestive of a morning mist shrouding a day and a landscape pregnant with wild transformative possibilities, its rolling drums tugging at your heels and urging you to run out into that brave new world.

5.3.13

2012 blind spot: A-Trak & DJ Zinc feat. Natalie Storm - Like the Dancefloor (Shadow Child Remix)

The arch bass-wobble, the time-stretched vocal, the synth wash... all tried and tested trak elements endlessly arranged and re-arranged in a looping circular vortex comprising the inescapable NOW. If music is supposed to map unexplored vistas over the present horizon, missives from alternative ways of living and being, a continual revolution in sensory experience, then obv how disappointing. The artful combination of recycled materials, how dead-eyed, how boringly COMPETENT.

But then there's a moment in this (around 2.44 in) when these sirens start blaring over a churning bassline, and I'm imagining a squad of Vortigaunts skanking through the halls of the Black Mesa Facility. Or when the skippy drums cut straight back in after the final chorus (around 5.10 in) almost saying "hey we're not done yet, the euphoric moment can wait, we need to segue into the next trak". A bit like last year's favourite 'Step In The Dance', this historical walking tour doesn't feel conservative or nostalgic, but fun – the past plundered to service the ever-more historically-aware dancefloors of the present.

That mindset probably what gets those Jackin' fiends so worked up about, tho have to say I stood through an hour-long Marcus Nasty set and barely felt the urge to twitch along to the stuff he was laying out...