Saturday, March 31, 2007

All Faith Forever Has Been Washed Away

Opeth – Still Life

Jon is still not sick of Opeth.

I've been busy listening to other stuff but my progress through Opeth's back catalogue continues behind the scenes. Still Life is one of the most highly regarded of their albums. Musically it is not much different from their later work: a combination of death metal and classic prog rock, melodic and beautiful in both modes and supported by brilliant technical musicianship.

Unlike the other albums of theirs I've been listening to this one is a concept album, telling the tale of a person who returns to the town of their birth to rescue their long lost love from the malevolent church in charge of the town. The concept didn't really add much for me, Akerfeldt's lyrics on this release suffer a little from 'Scandanavian guy writing in English' syndrome (i.e. when ones vocabulary slightly outstrips one's familiarity with the language), but it's no detraction either.

I don't like this album as much as Blackwater Park or Deliverance, as the songwriting doesn't quite reach the stellar heights of those albums and about half of the songs are relatively forgettable in comparison to their other work. Of course average by Opeth's standards is still pretty fucking good. The opening track 'The Moor' is a fan favourite for good reason, and the acoustic ballad 'Benighted' is very nice too. The highlight of the album however is 'Face of Melinda', which starts out as a ballad before getting a bit heavy towards the end. It manages to be bittersweet and edgy at the same time, and in contrast to what I just said about the album as a whole has some really great lyrics.

It does bear mentioning that this album does excel in one area when compared with it's peers, and that's the guitar solos. Akerfeldt and his six stringed henchman Peter Lindgren acquit themselves marvellously on all Opeth releases but on Still Life they've kicked things far and away into 'holy fucking shit' territory. At it's worst a guitar solo is a five minute masturbatory exercise in the listener's patience, but at it's best (and virtually every track on this album contains a perfect example) an instrumental solo expresses all the nameless things that can only be said by music with all the articulation of a vocal line without being weighed down by the crude limitations of mere language.

Friday, March 30, 2007

On the Blood Red Snowy Ground

Burzum – Burzum/Aske

You may recall that some time ago I wrote about Burzum's most recent album Hildskalf (insert your own arbitrary germanic character accents). Burzum is the work of the infamous Varg Vikarnes, considered the godfather of black metal mainly for being one of the first to define the genre's current sound (even though he considers most of the current practitioners to be posers and sellouts) but also for walking the walk in regards to the antisocial behaviour expected of a trve black metaller (i.e. the church burning, the satanism/paganism, the murder, the neo-Nazism and so on).

As it happens Hildskalf was not in any way a black metal album so I went back to his first release (actually his first two EPs concatenated onto a single album) which is more or less a textbook example of the genre. Probably because these early Burzum albums are the textbooks which later black metallers composed by.

Seminal as this album may be, it's not much more than an average listen. Varg's vocals are impressive, being one of the few examples I've heard of the standard black metal howl/gurgle that doesn't sound stupid, and the music, which is so stripped back as to be almost punk in some ways, is agreeable but in no way inspiring enough to justify this guy's inflated reputation. However there are a couple of ambient/industrial tracks included which I quite liked (especially 'Dungeons of Darkness', rattley, scrapey goodness!). I suspect that this album and Hildskalf are not his best works so I shall continue on with the other albums.

Varg claims to have recorded the whole thing in seventeen hours and played all the instruments himself (save for a guest guitar solo on 'War' by, you guessed it, Euronymous, the dude Varg is currently in jail for killing). That's quite impressive (If it's true that is. It must be borne in mind that this comes from the guy who says things like “I'm not a Nazi because I don't believe in 'national socialism'” and “I was framed for the murder! The police said that they found my fingerprints on the knife, but I wore gloves when I killed him!”) and even I, lover of over produced technical death metal, have respect for the purism of his back to basics, one take (mistakes and all) approach, and the fact that he made such a professional sounding album even within those constraints.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In the Next War We Shall Bury the Dead in Cellophane

Old Man Gloom – Christmas

This album was a completely random discovery encountered during my mission to illicitly download some Converge. Much to my astonishment I was completely blown away by how brilliant it was. A quick wikipedia search revealed the source of the awesomeness; Old Man Gloom is a supergroup of sorts boasting the presence of, among others, members of Isis and Converge. Fuck yeah.

This album alternates minimalist ambient tracks with heavy hardcore songs, and the contrast is quite striking. The ambient tracks are moody and disturbing (but great), the best example being 'Something for the Mrs.', in which an unpleasant sounding male voice recites absurd but unsettling nonsense about religion and war over a brooding ambient soundscape. These tracks are in the main the ones that stay with you after listening to the album. Like all the best ambient music it's beautiful but laden with sadness and regret, and in this case with a little disquieting menace.

The heavy tracks are brutal and angry, but nowhere near as affecting as the quiet ones. Fortunately they make up for it with sheer rock-your-face-off brilliance. The best track is 'The Volcano', which is a genuine revelation to listen to. The preceding ambient track fades into a quiet but menacing guitar riff, which is soon complemented by the meanest fucking bass figure ever written, boasting what is the most pants-creamingly crunchy bass guitar tone I've ever heard. After a decent few minutes of this it erupts into screamy hardcore bliss, with riffs so fucking awesome that they'll melt your face. If you like heavy music, run, don't walk, to soulseek and download 'The Volcano' by Old Man Gloom. Best song I've heard all year.

Fragile Things

by Neil Gaiman

The non fiction books I spent most of last year reading were fascinating, but man did it take me a long time to get through them. However as soon as I finished them I quickly breezed through Neil Gaiman's latest short story collection in a couple of days. I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Smoke and Mirrors, but it's still a fine read.

In the years since the last collection came out Gaiman's style has changed very little. All the stories are fantasy (or maybe sci-fi) but with a solid real world grounding (and sometimes the fantasy elements are a pretty light touch), although this time around the stories are less clever or whimsical and more sinister.

The first story is 'A Study in Emerald', which is an original mashup of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and Sherlock Holmes. In most writers hands this would be a terrible idea but Gaiman of course infuses it with wry wit and makes it the best idea in the world.

In 'October in the Chair' the months of the year sit around and tell stories. It's a typically Neil sort of story idea, and it gets mentioned in most reviews of the book as one of the best, but I didn't like it. It possibly had something to do with the attributes of the months being the opposite to what I think they should be.

'Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire' is just as cute and self-referential as the title suggests but is fairly amusing all the same. It's followed by a selection of ghost stories, all of which are very effective. 'Closing Time' has that classic ghost story kind of creepy imagery that lingers in the mind, but 'The Flints of Memory Lane' is scarier, probably because Gaiman claims that it's a true story from his childhood, and despite the lack of anything truly supernatural or dangerous, the detail evokes memories of those times when, as a child, you find yourself completely spooked by something for reasons you can't explain. 'Bitter Grounds' is another weird one. Gaiman's short stories sometimes have a way of hitting you with an random event at the end, and then sitting back and looking smugly at you as if to say “What's the matter? Don't you get it?” while the reader scratches his head and says “Yeah kind of, but it just doesn't quite fit...” I have yet to determine if this is because (a) I am dumb, (b) Neil isn't quite as clever as he thinks he is or (c) it's meant to be like that because Neil just likes to leave the reader with a sensation of dissatisfaction that they can't quite articulate the reason behind. I'm leaning towards (c).

'The Problem of Susan' is also noteworthy, for it's nasty, disturbing take on C.S. Lewis' high school chaplain approved Narnia series. As unpleasant as it was to read, I have to admit getting a good deal of satisfaction out of seeing an areligious counterargument to Lewis' books, which have always pissed me off. Thanks for ruining a perfectly good fantasy series with your stinky fucking religion, jackass.

The highlights of the collection are 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties' and 'The Day the Saucers Came'. The former does the standard post-modern fantasy story thing and takes an everyday cliché (in this case that to an adolescent boy girls may as well be from another planet) and makes it literal. It made me wish that I could meet some girls who were actually from another planet. 'The Day the Saucers Came' is a short poem that merges wit and poignancy flawlessly.

Not every story is a winner, I thought 'Diseasemaker's Croup' was a bit boring and stupid, but the rest of the book ranges from good too brilliant. The last story in the collection is 'Monarch of the Glen', which is a kind of sequel to American Gods, checking up on its protagonist Shadow a few years after the end of the novel, although it's more about Scotland than Shadow, who doesn't really do much in this story. It's still a much better sequel than Anansi Boys though.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What If Everything Around You Isn't Quite What It Seems?

Nine Inch Nails – Beside You In Time

Assuming nothing goes awry between now and April 17th this might be the first year that the Wildebeest Asylum does not award the Trent Reznor Award for the Best Album That Was Supposed To Come Out This Year But Didn't to Trent Reznor. The new album is looking set for a April release and the new DVD is already out. Also, Trent is no longer even pretending that the Closure DVD will be out any time soon. He even quietly released a high quality version of the Broken movie. Trent's sobriety certainly does seem to have rendered quite a change in his work ethic.

The new DVD seems in some ways to be a little superfluous. And All That Could Have Been was released after the last tour, and it was a pretty solid effort; two discs packed full of drunk Trent at his best. Beside You In Time doesn't really contain anything that it's predecessor didn't, save for a different setlist and a different band, but it is cool to get a chance to see the stage show and the songs from the With Teeth tour that didn't make it to the Sydney show.

For example they do some very neat stuff with a translucent curtain that drops down in front of the stage during the middle of the show, using it to play videos while the band is still visible behind it. The videos themselves are brilliant. 'Eraser' is suitably freaky and disturbing, while 'Right Where It Belongs' is truly affecting, in that weird NIN kind of way, somehow making beauty out of the strangest components: mundane shots of suburban houses and supermarkets, slow motion nature show footage of animals eating one another, and even more unpleasant things, such as George W. Bush and his wife dancing. 'Beside You In Time' is another highlight, a song that I was sorely disappointed not to get at the Sydney show, but it's very cool at the climax when Trent throws his microphone stand through the curtain and the videos play an image of a glass screen shattering.

It's interesting to compare the band in this DVD with the old one. Josh Freese puts poor old Jerome 'competent but not very exciting' Dillon to shame as a drummer. The new guitarist, Aaron North, is a lot better than Robin Finck (I was especially impressed by his mastery of feedback), but there's just something about his style that I dislike. I'm probably just biased because he's so emo. I do miss Charlie Clouser on keyboards and Danny Lohner on bass though. Those guys were cool.

The disc also contains the music videos for 'The Hand That Feeds' and 'Only', the two most boringist Nine Inch Nails videos ever. The DVD is still worth a purchase, but I would have much rather have received Closure.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

1001 Albums - Number 4

Louis Prima – The Wildest!

Despite a poor start the old 1001 albums list seems to be holding up OK. Louis Prima, while no major revelation, is good, fun listening, and 'I Ain't Got Nobody' (come on, you know it) is a genuinely great song.

Prima is a jazz trumpeter, although this takes back seat to his singing on most tracks, and this album bops jazzily along in an agreeable manner, aided by his sweet voiced wife Keely Smith (twenty years his younger, so scandalous!)

Unlike the grim and mournful Tragic Songs of Life, this album is bright and bouncy the whole way through. The subject matter is a bit dirtier than on the other albums from this era that I've listened to. '(I'll Be Glad When You're Dead) You Rascal You' is about exactly what the title says, and describes Prima's heartfelt desire to see this person (or perhaps it's an animal) dead in an extremely jovial tone.

This album is similar to the Louvin Brother's album in that, despite the poppy manner of the music, it's content (in this case a little bit of raunch, in theirs murder and edginess) has a little of the transgressive nature of later styles of rock music that would descend from it.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Dead Bodies Just Seem To Fall Before Me

Suffocation – Souls to Deny and Breeding the Spawn

In anticipation of their concert last month I went out and bought a few more Suffocation albums. Souls to Deny is their most recent release besides their self titled, whereas Breeding the Spawn dates all the way back to 1993.

Souls to Deny is fairly similar to it's successor in style, but lacks most of it's catchiness and spirit. They seem to have concentrated on technical achievement at the expense of everything else, and it's not nearly as much fun as the self titled.

Breeding the Spawn
on the other hand is brilliant. Even fourteen years ago these guys were maniacs on their instruments (maybe not quite to the degree that they are now), and they have all the energy and talent that they showed on Suffocation. As this is one of their earliest releases it comes as no surprise that it suffers from some impressively shitty production, which unfortunately renders the cool bass work all but imperceptible.

This stuff is all good but I think three albums are enough, at least for now. I'm not so much of a noise headed death metaller that I can listen to this stuff all day and after a while I find myself really really needing a change of tone. Unless it's Opeth. I can listen to those guys for a week and not get tired of it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

No One Will Break Your Fall

Converge – Live in Sydney, 22nd March

Well as it happens the concert scene was a little quiet while I was internetless, so there's nothing exciting that I've been gagging to post about, but we're straight back into it this week with Converge, on their first ever Australian tour.

I was surprised that they were playing at such a small venue, a little student bar at UNSW, and for so cheap. Only $30! I thought they were much more popular than that. (They certainly deserve to be more popular than fucking Satyricon.) The t-shirts were reasonably priced too, I'm not much of a band t-shirt wearer but for $20 I was persuaded to get one.

The lighting actually was this dim, it's not just my camera

The crowd was very uni, and to be honest I was far from being in the mood to be surrounded by screaming, giggling first years. On the plus side, my first hand reporting has now confirmed my hypothesis from last year. Hardcore chicks are hot.

These guys ran around the stage so much that it's hard to get a photo of them that doesn't look blurry

The opening acts were OK. First up were Hospital... uh... something something... as you can tell they really made an impression. They were OK but they really were basically a crappier version of Converge, only with beards. Next up were '4 Dead', who didn't impress me much but sure got the mosh pit going and had plenty of stage antics and energy. One of the guitarists wore a Converge t-shirt. I've found that Sydney is pretty bad for “You're the guy wearing the t-shirt of the band you're going to see. Don't be that guy.” but this is the first time I've come across a case of “You're the guy wearing the t-shirt of the band you're opening for. Please don't be that guy.”

The guitarist opens with an extended intro to 'Plagues'

But on to Converge. The setlist is pretty hard for me to remember, even with the vocalist introducing most of the songs by name, but among the songs played were:

No Heroes
Eagles Become Vultures
The Broken Vow
A bunch of short, brutal tracks. I think I heard at least parts of 'Drop Out' and 'Hope Street'
A bunch of old stuff that I didn't know

The encore was 'The Saddest Day', another old song that I didn't know, but judging by the crowd reaction a genuine fan favourite.

Yep. I'm afraid these are the best photos I got

The band delivered with all the energy they have on record, and stuck pretty close to the way they sound on their albums. The moshpit was fucking crazy and a good time was had by all. The vocalist was a really great frontman, delivering all the hardcore clichés ('believe in yourself', 'look your enemies in the eye and tell them that you're better than they are') with real passion, which I guess makes them not really clichés any more. One thing he said did stick with me, “This song is about the worst person I have ever met. This world is standing at a crossroads; you can choose to be a demon or a king or a queen,” which I thought was really cool (they then proceeded to belt out an awesome version of 'Concubine' to close the set), but it made me think. So often hardcore bands make political intimations, but they rarely come out and say what side they are actually on. With most bands you can assume they're lefties, but hardcore and black metal as genres sometimes have definite right wing tendencies, so you can never be sure. If I were to guess I'd say Converge were lefties but I honestly don't know. Anyway, it's interesting that hardcore bands often keep their political allegiances close to their chests. I'd guess that maybe they feel that no matter what they are, they're going to alienate half of their fanbase...

You can't really tell from this picture but that's the vocalist crowd surfing

Anyway the concert itself was great. Not up to Tool or Isis standards but fucking great all the same. These guys seem to genuinely want to do the best for their fans, as demonstrated by their reasonably priced merchandise, the constant, genuine stage banter and the way the vocalist stuck around after the last song and shook the hands of everyone in the front row. The highlight of the set for me was 'Concubine' (I was hoping for 'Grim Heart/Black Rose' but that was always going to be a long shot), but I didn't know much of the old stuff (although the audience clearly did). I hope these guys come back again soon when I've had time to consume a few more of their albums.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


by Peter Watson

Fancy that. I actually finished two books in a week. Of course it's then taken me a month to actually get this post up, but I think I can fairly claim extenuating circumstances. This one's a real mammoth and it took me about six months to get through. Not because it's boring or hard to read but (a) because of sheer length and (b) because it's so dense; full of information, history and of course, ideas...

Ideas is a world history of human thought, covering a time span from the dawn of humanity to about 1900CE. Battles, inventions and great men are mentioned, but only in order to give context to a narrative of the way in which people have viewed themselves and the world around them. It's somewhat disturbing to see just how much this has changed; it frightens me to think that even a thousand years ago most Europeans honestly believed that life was meant to be a painful and miserable punishment for Adam's sin, and if you go back further to the ancient Greeks, not to mention earlier societies in Asia and the middle east, the mindsets are truly alien to us.

The author's voice and opinions are very strongly imprinted on the interpretation of events but this didn't detract from the book at all, even when I found that I disagreed. The only complaint I would make is that it's a bit Euro-centric, at least from the midway point (the pre-renaissance) onwards, but to be fair a justification is put forward for that decision.

There's just so much interesting stuff packed into this book that it's quite impossible to give an overview of all the cool stuff I learned from it, but a few things stand out as being notable. Firstly, the so called 'axial age', the birth of the modern religions, coincides with the first appearance of another, more abstract, concept: the bad idea. Until this point it's one back-patting success after another: fire, the city, writing, civilisation, a code of laws. Once we hit about 400BC we start getting things like slavery and racism. My interpretation is of course contradicted if you buy Jared Diamond's theory that the original bad idea was moving from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary one, but while it's an interesting hypothesis it's little more than conjecture.

The other thing that stuck with me was the author's link between what he calls the hinge of history (the period around 1200CE in which commerce and learning in Europe began to recover from the dark ages and set the stage for the renaissance) and the rise of the belief in the importance of the individual. I'm not sure how this triggered the acceleration of science and technology that ushered in the renaissance and the modern era, but it's an interesting synchronicity.

There's loads of other stuff I could mention, but suffice it to say that this is a pretty cool book, and it presents history through a new and thought provoking perspective.

I'm Back

End of message.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The End(?)

A pall of smoke hangs over the once tranquil field. The ashes of the Wildebeest Asylum still hang in the air, drifting slowly to the ground. Those assembled hold their breath, the unspoken tension pregnant with the memory of what they had just witnessed; the death of a mighty blog, once first among it's peers, now brought down at what would appear to be the moment of it's triumph.

One by one the onlookers leave, hearts made heavy by what they had seen. But a glimmer of hope burned still, for all had heard the prophet's words:
"No man can say when the day will come. But all know within their deepest selves that it shall. On the day when the sun stands still, the dead walk once more and Jonathan gets internet access in his new flat, then the Wildebeest Asylum shall return, born anew as a phoenix from the ashes. Though the way may seem dark and troubled and some shall lose faith, believe that this most wonderous of blogs has not forgotten you, and will return in your hour of need."
Some dismissed the message as the senile ravings of an old man, but others kept the flame burning in their hearts. Patiently awaiting the day that a new post would appear.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Pursuit of Oblivion

by Richard Davenport-Hines

I'm in love with Kinokuniya, a bookshop here in central Sydney. I've made so many impulse buys there over the last year that there's a 'to read' stack as high as my bed in my room. The very first time I walked in there this book caught my eye, and although I had to wait a few months until my finances had stabilised to go on the book buying orgy I longed for, it was the first one I picked up when I did.

The subtitle of the book is 'A social history of drugs', and the first half covers drug use in traditional societies and the advent of the first synthetic drugs (namely opium and cocaine). It's very interesting to learn about how social attitudes towards these substances evolved, but it's presented very dryly and wasn't quite as full of prurient details as I hoped. The second half, while still broadly following the same subject, takes a sudden and impassioned turn in style as the author's outrage at the incredible harm done by the western world's (and most notably the USA's) drug policies can no longer be hidden behind guardedly passive non-fiction prose.

And it's hard not to get angry yourself while reading it. It makes sense when you think about it but I was surprised to learn that making drug use a criminal act is a convention that has only been around for a little over a century. Before then opiate and cocaine addiction were primarily afflictions of the middle and upper classes (at least in Europe) and it was treated (rightly) as merely a health issue. The only reason this approach failed was because of the poorly thought out medical decisions made by the doctors of the time:
“It was his [Dr. Alexander Wood, 1817-1884] idea that taking opiates through the mouth, and the act of swallowing, created an appetite, like other forms of food and drink. He became convinced that if the drug was injected rather than swallowed, patients would not hunger for it. He was wrong.”
Other shining moments of exemplary medical science documented in the book include deciding to wean patients off opium by switching them over to cocaine.

Another interesting insight is that every traditional culture in the world has it's own method of getting fucked up, based on the available plantlife; in Europe this was alcohol, in the middle east it was marijuana, in South America it was cocoa leaves and in Asia it was opium. Guess which one is acceptable in western society and which ones are regarded as deviant and dangerous. Also consider the nature of the puritanical anti-drugs campaigns when these drugs were first introduced to America; the dirty Mexicans raping white women while high on marijuana and the shifty Chinese creating hives of sin in their opium dens. From this perspective, the motives behind drug prohibition are often quite racist.

But despite the vitriol directed towards the various figureheads of prohibition (Thatcher and Reagan get pretty bad thrashings, but not the worst) the book gives us little insight into why this culture of finger waving wowserism came about so suddenly. There have always been religious nutters and Jim Andertons around, but they never succeeded in having their way until the late 1800s. Understanding what truly drives these people would seem to me to be an important part of engaging with their ideas, but it is left unexamined here.

Nevertheless the points the book does make are good ones. Firstly, that the common media caricature of the drug user, lower class, living in a dirty hole in the wall, not caring about anything but his or her next fix, has never been accurate. The middle and upper classes have always enjoyed indulging and most (but of course not all) manage to do so without ruining their professional or domestic lives. Secondly, that any level headed look at drug use must admit that besides the obvious bad effects that it has, humanity has and always has had a natural inclination towards getting fucking out of it (the titular pursuit of oblivion) and most, if not all, attempts at prohibition do not even acknowledge this fact, betraying their lack of grounding in any kind of interest in practical realities. Lastly, history and economics both show that any attempt to prohibit an intoxicating substance desirable by a large number of people is fighting futilely against the laws of supply and demand. Any success in restricting the supply simply increases the profitability for the criminal organisations importing it, and a significant number of end users will pay any price to get it, perhaps by resorting to crime, but more probably just because those who can afford it will always put a premium on having fun.

But tell all that to the Jim Andertons of the world. They haven't listened for the past hundred years, while they've squandered billions on an unwinnable war against (some) drugs, and they're not likely to start now.