Archive for January, 2010

Cardiacs – a video primer

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Cardiacs are my new favorite band of all time. They’ve been around since the early 1980s at least but astonishingly I never heard of them until last year, when I discovered the video for their early song “Tarred and Feathered” (not for the faint of heart or ear), which made me gape deliriously with a “you can make music like that?” reaction, one I’ve only had a few times in the past (Conlon Nancarrow and Phil Kline come to mind).

They’ve been described as “pronk”, or “prog-punk”, and I guess I can see that; there’s the musical interestingness of a lot of prog, combined with a punk sort of energy. Some of my favorite bands (the Pixies, the Minutemen, etc.) have that sort of mix, in varying ratios, and it rarely fails to please me. With Cardiacs the music is even more out there than usual, though.

It is amazing how relatively obscure they are — I spend a lot of time looking for music like this, and I somehow was able to miss them for decades — but fortunately they’re really well represented on YouTube, partially because the fanbase they do have is so rabid. Here are ten links to explore, in roughly chronological order, if the above description sounds appealing.

  • Gibber and Twitch (rehearsal (with misspelled title)) is a great example of their early hyper can’t-stay-in-one-place-for-more-than-ten-seconds style, though it’s actually a 2003 rehearsal video (there are keyboard parts you can’t see played because they use backing tapes in performance these days).
  • Tarred and Feathered (video) is an amazing piece of work, with enough musical ideas for four songs, and the gonzo ‘performance’ (the keyboardist and percussionist, at least, aren’t making any attempt to play their real parts) makes for one of the more arresting videos I’ve ever seen.
  • Big Ship (live) is off-the-wall and catchy at the same time, with a giant maestoso singalong chorus at the end that gives me chills. A good litmus test – if this is too crazy for you, you probably don’t stand a chance with most of their repertoire, but if you can imagine acquiring this taste, the rest will probably follow.
  • Everything Is Easy (live) is pretty straightforward but boy does it rock.
  • Is This the Life? (video) is their one hit, so I have to include it here, but honestly it’s one of my least favorite songs of theirs – it sounds like a Cure song to me.
  • Baby Heart Dirt (live) shows off their early funhouse style with an awesome riff and some great synchronized instrumental insanity in the second half.
  • Odd Even (music) is unusual in many respects for a Cardiacs song, but it shows that Tim Smith can write pretty (but still quirky) ballads when he wants to. And that keyboard solo!
  • Fiery Gun Hand (music) rocks with a righteous fervor, and as with Baby Heart Dirt, the second half of it is stuffed with more random awesome musical ideas than you can count.
  • Dirty Boy (music) is for many fans the ultimate Cardiacs song, nine majestic minutes of slowly-moving chords, spiraling ever higher and higher.
  • Wind and Rains Is Cold (fan video) is from their last full-length (so far), Guns. Not the one song from that album I would have chosen, but it’s the one I can find on YouTube, and it’s nice to have something like this after all the rockers above to show off their range a little.

Jeff VanderMeer: Finch

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

After finishing Shriek: An Afterword, I dove right into VanderMeer’s third Ambergris book, Finch. This is in yet another style — it’s a hard-boiled detective novel set in a dystopian future a hundred years after the events of the last book. It’s pretty cool how willing he is to play around with many different styles in the same world.

Despite my appreciation for it, it wasn’t totally successful for me, for reasons that are not really the author’s fault. For one thing, it’s a very grim book, and it turns out I wasn’t really in the mood for grim at the time I read it. Also, it resolves a bunch of mysteries from the first two books, but as you can guess from the word “dystopian” above, not in a very happy way. It made me sad that some of the open questions about Ambergris and the underground gray caps from City of Saints and Madmen that at the time were a neat mixture of charming and menacing turned out to be just menacing in retrospect. I’d almost rather imagine this book as one possible future history of Ambergris than as the one true author-approved one.

Anyway, as a book it was quite good despite my negative reactions above. The plot took a little while to get started and had just one or two too many components for my taste but was interesting and held together, and there were a few great “whoa” moments, as you would hope for in a fantastic (in genre) book. I’m not sure how much sense it would make if you hadn’t read the earlier books, but the first one (City of Saints and Madmen) is the one I would recommend for newcomers to Ambergris and VanderMeer anyway.

Jeff VanderMeer: Shriek: An Afterword

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen is one of my favorite books, a collection of stories and other strange forms (one item is a fictional bibliography, another is a medical report, another is written entirely in code) all set in the fantastic fictional city of Ambergris, built over the caverns of mysterious underground-dwelling mushroom people known as the Gray Caps, and home to the dangerously bacchanalian Festival of the Freshwater Squid, world-famous composer Voss Bender, and a zillion other captivating creative inventions. “The Transformation of Martin Lake” in particular is one of the most arresting stories I’ve ever read.

So I was thrilled to hear, a few years ago, that VanderMeer was returning to Ambergris with the novel Shriek: An Afterword. I bought it as soon as it was released, tore into it… and stopped 2/3 of the way through and didn’t pick it up again. It just didn’t resonate with me the way his earlier work did, and I found myself dutifully chewing my way through it without really enjoying it.

Then VanderMeer recently released a third Ambergris book, Finch, and it got me thinking that I should really give Shriek another shot. So I did, and I enjoyed it a lot more this time. This is a similar relationship to the one I had with Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon; in each case I had anxiously awaited a book, which then turned out to be not quite what I expected, reducing my enjoyment to the extent that I put the book down without finishing it, but then enjoyed it quite a bit on a reread when I understood more what I was in for.

Shriek is quite different from City of Saints and Madmen. Most of the metafictional tricks are gone, replaced by a single one; the story, Janice Shriek’s biography of her brother Duncan, is regularly interspersed with comments from Duncan himself, supplementing and/or contradicting her assertions. This could be pretty cool but it was mostly irritating; rather than adding surprising or world-overturning information to Janice’s observations, Duncan resorts mostly to “Well, it’s more complicated than you give it credit for” excuses. And where I was hoping for more revelations about the nature of the Gray Caps (especially after some teasers early on), the book mostly is concerned with the much less interesting social rise and fall of the two siblings.

But taken on its own terms, as I did on my second read, the book is still pretty interesting, and it did turn out that some exciting stuff happened just after the point where I gave up the first time. So I did enjoy it the second time, and knowing what sort of book it was did help a lot. It still didn’t live up to City of Saints and Madmen, but at least this time I didn’t expect it to.

I (still) don’t see anything when I close my eyes

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

That’s right, I have no visualization ability.

I wrote a fair amount about it here back in 1999, and nothing really has changed. I’m mostly adding a pointer to it from my blog here because I often get email from people who discovered the page and I don’t have time to reply to it all, so I want people to be able to leave comments or talk to each other about it here.

One person did point me at the work of Stephen Kosslyn, which looks like it might be interesting (I haven’t checked it out myself). His book The Case for Mental Imagery seems like a good place to start.

Brian Aldiss: Helliconia Spring

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

The idea is cool: the planet of the title orbits one star, which orbits another star in a very eccentric ellipse. So the planet, in addition to regular yearly seasons, has a thousands-of-years Long Season during which it goes from ice age to constant summer and back; and civilization never quite rises high enough during the summers to be able to make it through the ice ages intact. This is the first book of a trilogy, apparently set at widely separated points in that long cycle; in this one, the world is beginning to thaw and civilization is just starting to emerge again.

It was pretty neat overall, although I have a few gripes. The main one is that civilization pretty much springs into full bloom from nothing over the course of about one generation, domesticating “horses”, coming up with the idea of money, figuring out that the world goes around the sun (which goes around another one), etc. It turns out that previous go-rounds left a little help, but still. The characters are not so interesting that a lot would have been lost by spreading the advance of civilization over the course of several generations (and characters).

There’s also a totally incomprehensible element (that is, I can’t comprehend why the author put it in) of an orbiting space station from Earth which does nothing but observe the planet and the people on it (with apparently supernatural powers of observation, since it can observe individual conversations). Perhaps the point was to put in an omniscient narrator that somehow fits into the world; perhaps the reason for it becomes more clear in subsequent volumes. But here it just made me shake my head.

Good points: the world-building is very cool (I haven’t even talked about the native civilization, sort of ice-orcs who are obviously on their way out), and Aldiss has a way of narrating a primitive society that is interesting while not pretending that they’re modern people in animal skins.

I’m not sure if I would bother buying the other two books in the trilogy if I had this as a standalone, but I have an omnibus of all three volumes, so I may come back to it at some point, when and if I feel like reading something like this again. If that sounds lukewarm, I guess it is!