Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

Digital Vertigo, by Andrew Keen

Without a doubt, @ajkeen is a fine writer. The only word I can think of to describe the introductory chapter to his latest book, Digital Vertigo, is 'intoxicating'. He led me through the rainy streets of London to the corpse of Jeremy Bentham and expressed his inner turmoil over the posting of a neo-Cartesian tweet with such skill that, when I paused to reflect at the chapter's end, I wondered if there hadn't been some literary slight of hand involved, if the quality of the writing was blinding me to some sophistry. But no, it is simply that Keen is a fine writer.

The style settles down somewhat after that, but the method does not. Keen sees connections everywhere, and the result is a heady concoction of philosophy, history, cinema, art, hippy culture and technological commentary. I will not attempt to summarise the argument in any detail: it twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. Perhaps it goes too far sometimes—I was never entirely convinced by the relevance of Hitchcock's Vertigo (from which the book draws its name), although that may be in part due to my unfamiliarity with the film, which Keen would undoubtedly be horrified by. But there is a great deal that can be said about the modern sharing, public, digital world by taking a step back and looking at it from a wider historical / philosophical perspective, and I greatly appreciate Keen's efforts in drawing attention to such parallels.

One of the central arguments of Digital Vertigo is that the major proponents of the social web are those who stand to gain the most from it. It may ostensively be 'free' to join Facebook, but the consequence is that you are not actually a customer, in the traditional sense, of Facebook, but rather a product. And, as a product, the more you share, and the more social you are, the more valuable you become to the company. As such, it is no wonder that such the entrepreneurs behind such companies believe that privacy is dead, or that the future is social, or that humans are, by their very nature, social animals. It is no wonder because these technological gurus have a vested interest in encouraging you to be as social as possible.

Keen wishes to go further than that, however, arguing that we risk losing the essence of what makes us human when we succumb to the pressure of becoming hyper-social. Referring to Mill, he says that

our uniqueness as a species lies in our ability to stand apart from the crowd, to disentangle ourselves from society, to be let alone and to be able to think and act for ourselves.

Or to put it another way, the digital narcissism implicit in today's social networks is dangerously dehumanising.

Keen is no Luddite, which is why it's a cheap shot to criticise him for inviting people to follow him on twitter (as the book cover playfully illustrates). If anything, he's interested in informed consent; people should be aware of what they're getting into, of the dangers of excess, and free to choose not to. And naturally enough, the default setting of the social network should be privacy: we should choose to be public, not choose to be private.

If I have concerns about Digital Vertigo, it's with the occasionally disingenuous argumentation. Needless to say, Jeff Jarvis and his recent Public Parts comes in for a fair amount of criticism, but Jarvis is generally more sophisticated than Keen's treatment suggests (that being said, Jarvis' unquestioning idolisation of Mark Zuckerberg began his book with a sour taste that I could never quite dismiss). But there are other points where the polemical narrative seems to take over: for example, in describing Josh Harris, the subject of We Live In Public, Keen suggests that Harris is now more-or-less living in isolation and disgrace in Ethiopia. Not so, according to Jarvis, who spends several pages describing 'The Wired City', a next-generation reality show planned by Harris (admittedly a kickstarter project which failed). Another example: Eric Schmidt's rather ridiculous comment that young people should be able to automatically change their names on reaching adulthood, which, as Jarvis points out, was intended as a joke. Keen is well aware of this, as I've seen him acknowledge in an interview, but it's not mentioned in the book, presumably because it would have weakened, or distracted from, the point he was trying to make. Also, I've always considered novelists less than reliable sources for philosophical arguments (because what they are writing is, by its nature, fiction), but Keen is more than happy to cite authors, novels, and films to illustrate his argument that we're heading in the wrong direction.

These points may well be pedantic, and I do, in principle, agree with where Keen is trying to go with the book; there were just times when I was sceptical about how he was getting there. And that is true of pretty much every mention of The Social Network, a (semi)fictionalised account of the birth of Facebook which Zuckerberg refused to be interviewed for. The film may have been Oscar-nominated, but that hardly grants it any credibility; and suggesting, as Keen does at the end of Digital Vertigo, that we should watch it in order to help make the choice "between being human and being an elephant or a sheep" is almost farcical. At best, this is preaching to the converted, because none of the 'proponents' of the social network will have any time for the film (think: hatchet job). At worst, it's a cynical deception: trust a Hollywood, old media, fictionalised cinematic account rather than seeking the truth. I don't actually think that Keen is being so manipulative; but if Jarvis' hero-worship of Zuckerberg is the sour taste in Public Parts, Keen's praise for The Social Network is the bum note in Digital Vertigo.

All in all, though, I enjoyed my time with Digital Vertigo, and my copy is enthusiastically dog-eared. It's a well-written, insightful account of the potential dangers of the social web we find ourselves increasingly caught up in. And if, at times, Keen gets a little too wrapped up in the point he's trying to make, it doesn't stop that point being any less vital or timely.

[Keen's recent opinion piece on CNN is worth a read to get the gist of what the book is about...]

Kamasutra (o.s.t.), by Can / Irmin Schmidt (2009)

The Inner Space - KamasutraAccording to The Can Book, the band did not hit upon their name until December 1968; and music included in this soundtrack was recorded a month before that. And so Kamasutra is credited to Irmin Schmidt & Inner Space Production. Indeed, none of the musicians involved in the recording are mentioned in the sleeve notes, which instead summarise the contents of the obscure German film. Only Malcolm Mooney, and one Margarete Juvan, receive any credit, and only because they sing on one track each.

And in a way, that's fair enough. This is, after all, proto-Can, Can before they found their groove and identity. In some ways, the music here resembles some of the entries in their occasional Ethnic Forgery Series, but that's not quite fair, as the most of the EFS pieces which have been released are decidedly tongue-in-cheek—they're 'forgeries', after all—while the ethnic elements appropriated here are played more conventionally. Both the ethnic elements and the rock elements sound fairly typical of the sound of the late 60's, and so unrepresentative of Can themselves. That's not to say the album is of no interest to a Can fan; it's just a recording of the band in their earliest stages of development. And at several points I thought I heard references to later pieces, riffs or rhythms which would soon make their way onto record in a different form.

It's also interesting to hear David Johnson's flute playing here; if I remember correctly, there were only a couple of points on Unlimited Edition where we've heard it before. To be sure, that flute is what part of what makes the album not quite sound like Can; but this was apparently the only time when the six musicians of Inner Space played together, and it's a fascinating insight into the band's development.
__________

Verdict: Much as I appreciate this release, it's hard to rate the album higher than Decent. Dedicated Can fans may consider this to be an essential part of their collection, but anyone else is not likely to be impressed.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Livemiles, by Tangerine Dream (1988)

Tangerine Dream - LivemilesUntainted by any hint of nostalgia, I've just listened to the album for the first time. One of the words often used in connection with Livemiles is 'warm', and that seems appropriate to me. In a way that's surprising, because all those keyboards and computers were typically thought to lead to soulless music (in part Kraftwerk's influence, no doubt). But warm this album is, while thankfully avoiding being too drippy or saccharine.

Despite that, Livemiles is still basically wallpaper, or coffee-table music. It doesn't challenge, it doesn't really excel, it doesn't excite. It does what it does well—and warmly—but it never even attempts to scale the heights of previous Tangerine Dream albums, live or otherwise. For its time, and its place in the band's discography, it's pretty good; but that's like saying it's the best of a bad bunch, or the lesser of many evils.

To be fair, I probably will listen to Livemiles again; somehow, I see the point. I wish it was a more interesting point, but at least it has one.
__________

Verdict: Not really good, but not a total waste either. Still, the album probably represents the point at which I part company with Tangerine Dream.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Underwater Sunlight, by Tangerine Dream (1986)

Tangerine Dream - Underwater SunlightWay back when, I used to listen to a compilation of Tangerine Dream which, bizarrely, contained a single track from their pre-Phaedra records, and then material from nearly a decade later, skipping their Virgin years entirely. It made for a weird mix—krautrock experimentation rounding out a selection of 80's electronica.

In the early 90's, of course, the 80's were not so far away, and I had not yet come to a) despise the 80's as the worse decade of music in the entire history of the universe, and b) love early krautrock. And so I thought the two-part (and side-long) 'Song of the Whale' was pretty damn epic and pretty damn fine. Twenty years later, I decided to pick up the remastered edition of Underwater Sunlight, the original album containing that piece.

The problem is, in the end, that I've delayed so long in picking that album up because I've been testing how far my patience with Tangerine Dream goes. I love the pure krautrock years of the band, and I like most of the Virgin period a great deal. But by the time we hit the 80's, my interest begins to wane; there are just too many synths, too much New-Ageiness, too many soundtracks. Though I appreciate that the band were still capable of putting out side-long tracks on both studio and live albums, the overall feeling I get from them at this point is of pastiche rather than progress.

And so 'Song of the Whale', while clearly the best thing on Underwater Sunlight, is far away from what I really want to hear from Tangerine Dream. To be sure, after all this time, I still know the whole track note-for-note, and the Big Guitars™ which turn up about half way through each part of it do remind me of what my younger self liked about this, bombast notwithstanding. But it no longer captures my imagination—musical or otherwise—in the way it did, and I've never been very susceptible to nostalgia (in the sense of liking what I used to like because I used to like it).

The rest of the album is increasingly worse, gradually dropping the guitar solos and devolving electro-pop, with the bonus 'Dolphine Smile' representing just how far Tangerine Dream had fallen by this point.
__________

Verdict: I considered being lenient towards this, given the nostalgia I said I wasn't affected by. But I can't. Underwater Sunlight is simply Bad. The only time I'm ever likely to listen to it again is on a Tangerine Dream marathon, and then only to make myself sad about how good they used to be.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic.]

Clannad (2007)

I came to Clannad principally because the second season, After Story (reviewed separately), is the highest rated show on the Anime News Network. Needless to say, user ratings should always be taken with a pinch of salt (as should any ratings), but After Story is highly rated on other sites as well. As someone with a general interest in good anime, this was enough to make me check it out, even as the character designs screamed their warnings at me.

Make no mistake: Clannad is moe. To be sure, the body designs look like adults (or teenagers) rather than children, but the facial design, particularly of the girls, is very much the big-eyed, tiny-mouthed stereotypes that most people associate with anime. This isn't the kind of thing I normally like, unless it's being spoofed (as in Lucky Star), but to get anything out of Clannad you'll have to be able to deal with it.

While we're counting potential black marks against the show, it should be said that Clannad is also a high-school romance. If you can't stomach school kids failing to communicate their feelings, this show may not be for you. And finally, the show is based on a visual novel (by Key/Visual Arts). Visual novels, for those who don't know, are basically role-playing games; they often fall into the dating-sim or erotic territory, though thankfully Clannad doesn't go there.

To summarize the list of preconceptions: Clannad is a visual novel-based moe-style high-school romance. That mixture has lead to some of the most dreadful examples of anime ever created, and would be more than enough to make some viewers avoid the series like the plague.

But the thing is, Clannad does what it does very well. While its various story arcs do have a certain feel of questing about them—solve the riddle of Fuko, make Kotomi come out of her shell and come to terms with her past, find a way to get the drama club established for Negisa—the writing introduces the various plot lines some time before they become the main focus, making the structure of the series as organic as it can be, rather than a succession of stages which need to be completed. Perhaps more importantly, there is never really any question that Tomoya will get together with Negisa; other possible romances are entirely one-sided affairs, and only really occupy two episodes late in the series (in which Toyoma is suitably flummoxed by the attention he's receiving). So Clannad avoids cheap 'Which one will he choose?' dramatics, and instead allows its two romantic leads to grow together gradually. (Three of the other romances are given room to breathe in two of the specials which accompany Clannad and After Story, but they are presented as just that: alternate romances in alternate realities).

The other thing that keeps Clannad from slipping into mediocrity (or worse) is that it has underlying theme: family. Tomoyo says in episode 18:

"When I say family, I don't necessarily mean your real family—it could be your friends instead. All that matters is that you have something like a family to support you."

From this perspective, pretty much the entire show is about family, be it Tomoya's estranged father, Negisa's crazy parents—who steal every scene they're in—or her favourite song (hell, one of the plays shown late in the series is Oedipus). Kotomi's arc is a good example: although concerned with her parents, it really involves her friends gathering around her to offer support, ultimately through actions rather than words. It ends up being far more subtle than 'Tomoya solves the problems of possible romantic partners', and Clannad should be commended for that.

Tomoya himself is a genuinely nice guy with a playful sense of humour (as is true of the series as a whole), and that helps the show considerably, not least in providing a fairly convincing reason why all these girls might be interested in him (rather than wish fulfilment of the player/viewer). And as for the girls themselves… Ryon wins the Complete Drip award, as Negisa (arguably) manages to grow a spine as the series progresses. Tomoya and Kyon, as the boisterous tsundere-types, are much more dynamic and fun. Tellingly, Kyon has to train the socially inept Kotomi in the art of delivering comebacks; so guess who is responsible for more comebacks over the course of the show? But all of them, detached as they are from their possible roles as romantic interests for Tomoya, fare better than they might have otherwise. Moe or not, Clannad is mainly focussed on friends doing things together.

(Incidental aside: Kyon and Ryon are twins, and mirror the twins Kagami and Tsukasa from Lucky Star, even down to the colour of their hair, and the fact both Complete Drips (Ryon and Tsukasa) have short hair and the tsundere types (Kyon and Kagami) have long hair. It must be a tradition, or an old charter, or something).

That isn't to say that it doesn't delve into melodrama and sentimentality, especially at the climaxes of Fuko's and Kotomi's arcs, launching into Clannad's Sentimental Music Cue™ and Emotional Fireworks Display™. Whenever this occurred, I found myself disappointed; the show is, for the most part, too well written and structured for such heavy-handedness. These emotional 'pay-offs' seem more like cop-outs to me, as if the writers were unwilling to let the stores play out to their natural conclusions, and instead felt obliged to offer viewer an Uplifting Resolution™. In both arcs, the journey is rather better than the destination, and that may be true of the show as a whole.

Special mention should also be made of the haunting 'Girl in the dying world' sections; these are probably my favourite sections of the series. The understated images, the narration of the little robot, and the tone of loneliness they set are simply another reason why those descents into sentimentality just don't work for me.

Ultimately, Clannad is an often funny, occasionally cute, sometimes sentimental, but always leisurely high-school romance, bolstered by a surprising thematic depth. It isn't as funny as Azumanga Daioh, as clever as Haruhi, or as bizarre as Lucky Star, nor as complex (and generally different) as His and Her Circumstances. To be sure, it doesn't exactly rise above its origins, but it does largely play them down, for the most part successfully. If you're going to make a visual novel-based moe-style high-school romance, Clannad is pretty much the way to do it.

After Story is an entirely different beast, however.
__________

Verdict: Very good: don't miss it. Really, unless those potential black marks I mentioned at the start are just too much for you, Clannad is definitely an enjoyable watch.

[Version watched: Region 1 English dub; review also posted at MyAnimeList]

E2-E4, by Manuel Göttsching (1984)

Manuel Göttsching - E2-E4 Clearly way ahead of its time, that's for sure.

Recorded 1981, released in 1984, E2-E4 was arguably the first recognizable trance album (I say arguably because I don't know of any other contender, but could be proved wrong). In some ways following on from where 1974's  Inventions for Electric Guitar left off, E2-E4 is a single 59 minute track, composed principally of electronic rhythms. For the first 30 minutes it builds and builds, adding more instruments and variations until a solo guitar enters the scene. At that point, for my taste, the album becomes a little less impressive: the guitar somehow never quite takes off, and I prefer the moments when it falls into playing rhythm and lets the electronics carry the melody (such as it) is. Also, although it continues to vary, the background electronic rhythm more often becomes just that: a background to the guitar in the foreground.

Personally, I like it less than Inventions: it's perhaps just that little bit too long, that little bit too monotonous, with a little bit too much guitar noodling, to reach quite the same level. That being said, E2-E4 is still a landmark album in modern (electronic) music.
__________

Verdict: I'll say it's Very Good, but it should really be in anyone's collection, unless you're the kind of person who despises all forms of electronic music.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Starcraft II: A half review of disappointment

A day after release, I picked up the Starcraft II collector's edition. Last night I completed the single player campaign. These are my thoughts about the game. Spoilers indicated.

Mac Land / Performance

[No spoliers]
As usual, Blizzard remain committed to the Mac platform like no other major developer. The standard release of Starcraft II contains native versions of the game for both Windows and Mac on a single disc. Even as more stores are stocking Mac games because of increasing market share, it's still rare for a company to develop their own port and release it in the same package. Witness the two games I've played recently: The Witcher was never ported to Mac at all, and Dragon Age: Origins was fobbed off with a prompt, performance-challenged, and seemingly unsupported Cider port. But despite this, all is not well in Starcraft II Mac land.

First of all, a niggling issue that bugged me. The collector's edition contains a somewhat heavy usb flash disc which replicates the dog-tags seen in the game. It come with both the original Starcraft and the Broodwar expansion pre-installed; but only for Windows. Thankfully, the registration key can be used on the battle.net site to register the game and you can then download a Mac version in whatever language you like. Unfortunately, you need to launch the Windows installer to find out what that key is.

Much more important is the performance of the game, which is terrible. My Macbook is pretty new (late 2009) even if it is not the most powerful. But it easily meets the requirements for the Starcraft II. Nevertheless, the game has to be set to the lowest possible settings to be playable; and then it looks little better than Warcraft III. On the same machine under Windows 7, I can boot the settings up on everything at least a notch, which makes a considerable difference. And it seems from the forums that this is more-or-less a universal problem for Macs of all capabilities, because of drivers and broken shaders / lighting. Hopefully this will be fixed soon (and knowing Blizzard it probably will be), but at the moment Starcraft II is only just playable on Macs, if at all.

Battle.net / DRM

[No spoliers]
Next up is battle.net integration. To register Starcraft II, you have to log on to battle.net; after that, whenever you boot up the game you'll be asked to sign on with you battle.net account. This allows a number of cool features, such as achievements and online saves. This latter is quite sweet: when I installed the game on Windows today and logged on for the first time, I was able to pick up my single player game from where I left it. However, the implementation is a little clunky: Starcraft II will remember my account name but not my password (Dragon Age remembers both), meaning I had to change my password to something a lot simpler and less secure so I could type it in every time I boot the game.

If this sounds suspiciously like a form of DRM which requires you to have an internet connection at all times, you wouldn't be far wrong. Starcraft II does have an offline mode, which means that if no internet connection is detected you should be informed and can play anyway (so long as you've registered once). Sounds fine; except for many people it isn't working, and anything you do during this offline phase will not be recorded or synced with battle.net next time you reconnect.

This is what happened to me. I was playing along, completing missions and picking up achievements, when all of a sudden all my save games had gone. It turns out that I had been disconnected from battle.net while playing, and so everything I did after this was automatically saved as a new, unidentified user. I no longer had access the the old files. But with no huge pop-up explaining the problem I had no idea what was going on and soldiered on. In fact, several hours later, I completed the game, let the credits role, and only then was notified that I'd been disconnected. The problem is that when I reconnected, all of that recent gameplay vanished – as it belonged to an unidentified user rather than my battle.net account. As far as Starcraft II was concerned, I hadn't completed any of those missions, nor the game as a whole. I'm sure that if I disconnected again, those saves and missions would be available – but none of the preceding ones the would be. And there is currently no way to merge the two sets of files.

To put it simply, this sucks. Being set back several hours because of a weak internet connection is dreadful service. And what if, for example, I want to visit my girlfriend's parent's, where I don't have access to the internet. If I'm lucky I can play, I can even continue the game, but it won't be acknowledged in anyway.

Many games require an internet connection nowadays – Dragon Age does. But not having one will not negatively affect gameplay. I remind you that this concerns the single player campaign, not multiplayer: I'm playing against the computer. The internet is not required at all for this. But Blizzard have integrated the save game system into battle.net in such a way that it is easier for me to carry on from where I left of when I install the game on a new computer, than when the internet drops out for a couple of minutes. That's crazy.

Knowing that I have to replay those final missions just to get an achievement to say that I've done so put a serious dampener on my enthusiasm for the game.

Story mode

[Minor spoilers]
On to the starship environment which forms you base of operations. Starcraft II definitely boasts a much improved 'story mode'. Where the original game simply loaded the next mission, Starcraft II allows you move to four different locations on your ship (armoury, bridge, canteen, lab) and talk to various crew members about the last mission, or buy upgrades for units. There's far more interaction with NPCs than ever before, and it looks much better than the cut-scenes in Warcraft III, for example. But improved as it is, I wanted more. The locations you can visit are static, with an occasional NPC wandering about. So you get one view of the bridge, and that's it. Interaction with NPCs and objects is just as limited: click on an object, trigger the cut-scene, move on. There's no scope for dialogue options at all.

An example: at one point you pick up a female scientist whose planet is under attack. You evacuate her colonists, relocate them, and kick her off the ship. All well and good. While she's on board, you have a handful of brief dialogues, and as she leaves, she kisses you on the cheek having developed some feelings for you. All well and good. But because of the limited interaction, she's utterly undeveloped as a character. Just take a look on her character profile on battle.net – obviously enough, she's got an entire life history. Can you find out any of this in the game? No. Is there any indication of any of it in the game? No. On battle.net, she's a fully fleshed out character. In the game, she's more-or-less a hitch-hiker. You pick her up and take her to her destination. That's it.

True, I may have been spoilt by games like Dragon Age, in which you can actually talk to your group of NPCs and they will either grow to like you or hate you depending on what you say to them. In the end, these starship sequences are good, but feel so much like a missed opportunity. There's only three members of the crew who have anything like realised characters, and that's Jim Raynor (your character), Tychus Findlay (more on him below), and arguably Matt Horner (ship's captain).

Part one of three

[Minor spoilers]
Now we come to the hub of the problem with Starcraft II: the story. The first thing to mention is that the game I've been calling Starcraft II is really Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. It's the first part of a trilogy of games, and single player campaign has 29 missions focussed on the Terran (human) forces. There's a brief section in which you can play Protoss, and at no point do you play as Zerg. Where the original game (and Warcraft III) had three 'chapters' – one for each race – of some 10 missions each, Blizzard decided this time to spend almost the same amount on one race at a time. We'll get round to campaigns focussed on the other races in the sequels.

I have, in principle, no problem with this. Twenty-nine missions allows greater involvement with the Terrans than before. Theoretically it allows for a more gradual build-up of the story-line; and indeed, for the first few missions you really are just bumming around raiding and pirating. But... Many of the missions are really side quests (I'm curious how many could be avoided altogether). The afore-mentioned scientist has a series of missions which have absolutely no bearing on the main 'plot'. There's a renegade wraith (an enhanced ghost) whose missions are exactly the same.

Now, the advertising for Starcraft II boasts that your actions will affect the development of the game, and indeed they do, but strictly speaking only in three cases are you actually given a choice. Once is at the end of the game, when you can choose to cripple either the ground forces or their air forces of the Zerg before the final battle. The other two cases are in the side quests mentioned above: you may choose to support the renegade wraith, or betray him; and you may choose to support or abandon the scientist when her colonists are about the be purged for Zerg infestation by the Protoss. The choices have an impact on the individual story-lines, but since these story-lines are effectively isolated from the main plot, so are the choices. In the end, the only real choices which have any effect on the campaign are the order in you complete the missions, which determines what units you have available at a given point, and what upgrades to research or purchase. That's fine, but given the extent to which recent RPG games (again taking Dragon Age and The Witcher as examples) allow you to affect scenarios, this has to be chalked up as another missed opportunity.

The Betrayal

[Major spoilers]
On to the story proper. I have to say, this was the first time I've been disappointed with a Blizzard story (I haven't played the first two Warcraft games, nor World of Warcraft). First of all, we have Tychus Findlay, an old buddy of Raynor's who's being blackmailed into betraying him. That's the plot twist. The problem is that from the very start of the game it is clear that Tychus is going to betray Raynor in some way. From the fact it's his face on the cover, to the opening cinematic, to his unwillingness to discuss his escape from prison, to hints dropped by all and sundry. The only thing we don't really know is how he'll betray Raynor, and who he's working for.

Who is obvious enough, in fact: Arcturus Mengsk, who betrayed Raynor in the first game by sacrificing an entire planet in order to take power in the region. Mengsk has been the villain since the end of the first chapter (of six, counting the expansion) of the original game. So no surprise there. What is surprising is that, while working undercover for Mengsk, Tychus enthusiastically works against Mengsk, along with Raynor. At no point is there any indication that he's trying to sabotage Raynor's operations, even when Raynor gets hold of a recording of Mengsk issuing the order to lure the Zerg to that planet in order to take control in the ensuing chaos. Needless to say, broadcasting that recording is devastating: imagine a recording of George Bush from before the Iraq War admitting he knew there were no WMDs and going ahead anyway. And multiply it by a thousand. But the mission in which you take over the UNN to broadcast the recording is the one in which Tychus in most directly involved.

Okay, you might say, but any subterfuge on Tychus's part would risk giving the game away. Yet the game has already been given away to all but Raynor, who will brook no criticism of his buddy. Any villain worth his or her salt would take steps to avoid the kind of damage which Raynor causes: after all, if Tychus is there to assassinate Raynor, it should be done before Raynor manages to undermine the whole regime.

But Tychus isn't there to assassinate Raynor. He's there to assassinate the Queen of Blades, the ruler of the Zerg created from Raynor's old flame Sarah Kerrigan who was betrayed and left behind by Mengsk when the planet was sacrificed. It seems that Mengsk, in an amazing feat of premonition, knows that Raynor will ultimately succeed in battling through swarms of Zerg forces to Kerrgian in the hope that she can be deinfested and redeemed; and that Raynor's mercy will mean that Tychus will have to step in and take her out.

I don't buy this at all.

To begin with, at the start of the game when we meet Tychus for the first time, there is no indication that Kerrigan could become deinfested and so weakened to a point where she could be easily killed (other than Mengsk's fabulous skills of prediction). Secondly, everybody has been running circles around Mengsk throughout the game. Raynor has been making significant progress in his war of liberation; the disenfranchised on planets everywhere are in uproar; and even Mengsk's son Valerian has been vying for a position of strength. He's been secretly funding the recovery of an ancient artefact of immense power (which Raynor has been collecting the in fragments), and ultimately snatches away half of the imperial fleet and allies himself with Raynor for an assault on the Zerg homewold. So: the only time in the entire game in which Mengsk seems to  be on the ball is at the moment of Tychus' betrayal, and by that time it is barely plausible. In comparison, imagine it had been Valerian who was behind Tychus' betrayal. Valerian is funding the Möbius company to search for the artefact, and Tychus originally says that it was this company who paid his bail. Likewise, Valerian knows exactly what the artefact does, or at least suspects at the start of the game. He's also trying to step out from under his father's shadow, and bears no personal grudge again Raynor. It's more than plausible that he would want to achieve something big (such as defeating the Queen of Blades) and would be more than happy to use Raynor to achieve that goal, which would double as rude gesture to his father as well.

In the end, it seems to me that the decision to have Mengsk himself behind Tychus' betrayal was motivated by an awareness that Mengsk seems to be complacent to the point of incompetence throughout the game; and that does not a good arch-villain make. The fact that it makes the whole betrayal preposterous seemingly slipped under the radar.

Finally, let's talk about the artefact. It's totally a deus ex machina. It effectively comes out of nowhere and saves the world. All of a sudden, the Zerg are (seemingly) completely defeated and Raynor has his girl back, and carries her off into the sunset. The only thing which keeps me from thinking that this is completely lame is knowing that there will be two sequels: the Protoss mini-campaign hints at a cataclysmic battle to come, although to be honest it didn't seem to add anything beyond what was already hinted at in the original game. And I know that it isn't fair  to compare the end of Wings of Liberty to the end of Starcraft I (which was apparently voted the best end of a game in 2003). The artefact can't begin to compare to Tassadar's ramming a battle ship into the Zerg Overmind and (seemingly) loosing his life in the process. But if the end of this instalment brings us a third of the way through Starcraft II, then it may be fair to compare it to the end of the first chapter of the original game. Yet against Mengsk's sacrifice of an entire planet, and the betrayal of Kerrigan which sets in motion so many events to come, Tychus' betray just doesn't cut it.

Conclusion

There is plenty to like about Starcraft II. The graphics, when they work, are very good. The single player missions are well designed. The cinematics are excellent, as are the 'story-mode' animations. The variations brought into the campaign allow for interesting replays. And of course, this is no more than a half review, as I'm not touching on multiplayer at all. Ultimately, it may be no more than a quarter review, or even a sixth, if the sequels bring more to the multiplayer table. But my feelings remain the same: for the first time, I'm underwhelmed by a Blizzard game. And most surprising of all is that the story is its greatest disappointment.

Flag: The Movie

Just finished re-watching the movie version of Flag (which seems only to be available in German-speaking countries), and it is everything that Mind Game is not. I won't pretend to be writing a full review here, as that would hardly be fair with a 100-minute edit of a 13 episode series—and I can hardly assess the edit properly until I've seen the full series. But here's a couple of observations.

Firstly, the mecha elements of the show, which some people find inappropriate. Do we really need to have piloted robots in a UN-based operation set not too far in the future? Maybe not, but the robots here resemble the Tachikomas and Uchikomas of Ghost in the Shell (minus the artificial intelligence) more than they do the giant machines of Mobile Suit Gundam or Neon Genesis Evangelion. The HAVWCs of Flag are presented as if they are plausible developments of military hardware, powerful and maneuverable, but far from indestructible. On one level, they are an attempt to imagine what the conflicts of the near future might look like; on another, they are an attempt to reclaim the whole mecha genre from impossibly huge machines piloted by whining brats.

More importantly, the first person perspective—everything is seen through a lens—is not a gimmick. Flag is about the power of the image, and in particular the photographic image; to be constantly reminded that we are watching images is completely appropriate. In a sense, Flag is coldly objective in its resemblance to a documentary, stripping away (almost) all the usual bombast and noise associated with military drama. But not only that: by showing us what is seen through the viewfinder, rather than just the final product, we're being reminded that photography and film are a process, and at the same time that there is always a person behind the lens who sees.

This representation of photography is also a reference to traditional animation, and perhaps to film itself, which is precisely about using still images to create motion, narrative and meaning. Flag is at once a tribute to the camera, the media, and the operator, both in form and content.

As you might guess, I think that Flag is considerably more subtle that the military-political thriller it appears to be on the surface. Maybe at some point I'll attempt a more comprehensive and coherent review.

Mind Game, directed by Masaaki Yuasa


Synopsis


Nishi and Myon were shy sweet-hearts at school but haven't met for some years. Nishi visits Myon and her sister Yan, who run a cafe. While there, two thugs turn up looking for Myon and Yan's father, who is in trouble with the local mafia. One of the thugs goes berserk, attacks Myon, and shoots Nishi.

His spirit leaves his body and meets a constantly shape-shifting God, who informs Nishi that he's dead. Not wanting to accept this, Nishi forces his way back to life through sheer determination, and finds himself in the cafe a few seconds before his death. This time he kills the thug, and flees with the two girls. A car chase ensues; just as capture seems inevitable, the trio drive off a suspension bridge and are swallowed by a whale.

Inside the whale they meet an old man who has been stranded there for 30 years; he helps them to survive and encourages them to make the most of the situation.

Finally, they escape.

Review

I like arty and pretentious anime as much as the anyone. I think Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose seemingly innocuous mecha beginnings give way to stream-of-consciousness psychoanalyzing, is a high-water mark. Confusing or confused, it's worth it. And I'm a huge fan of Satoshi Kon's work, all of which pushes the limits of anime. I enjoy the challenging stuff.

So when I read several fairly glowing reviews of Mind Game, I was curious. But I'm not sure if we were all watching the same film. Yes, the art and animation are spectacular, shifting between contrasting styles with grace and ease. It's certainly a visual showcase. Yet none of the reviews mention the aspects I'm going to talk about below; and I'm inclined to think that beyond the artwork, Mind Game is really just art-house by numbers. Fill in the dots between seemingly edgy elements, and you'll have a great piece of cinema. Or not.

Take the characters. Nishi is a wannabe Manga-artist. Fine. Myon wanted to be a swimmer until her breasts got in the way. Um, fine. The old man prepares gourmet dinners and talks to his friends, the dinosaurs. Whatever. And Yan wants to be a performance artist and likes nothing more that taping balloons to her chest, covering herself with paint, and throwing herself at canvas. While trapped inside a whale. Er… what?

This is all meant to be psychedelic and avant-garde, I suppose. Subtle it isn't. For example: Nishi tells Myon a story about space explorers for whom the only source of food on the planet they were stranded on was alien excrement. But then it turns out that the space explorers were actually on a cell in Myon's body, and they grew larger until being flushed out of her system. You can imagine the details, I'm sure. This charming tale has the inexplicable effect of seducing Myon; I can only suppose that her eyes were so clouded with love that saw in it the unrestrained imagination of her beau, and that the story was meant to have the same effect on the viewer. Personally, I just thought it was tasteless.

Duly seduced, Myon and Nishi have sex. Fortunately, there isn't any nudity, as their bodies dissolve into a kaleidoscope of lines, colours and images. Unfortunately, this sequence resembles nothing so much as a 1969 sketch by Monty Python: trains entering tunnels and then crashing, waves lashing against the shore, that sort of thing. Only in the sketch, we ultimately pan away to reveal an inept guy playing the film to his increasingly frustrated girlfriend. See, the Python sketch is a parody. Which says a lot for the sequence in Mind Game.

It's as if the whole thing is trying too hard to be different, to be absurd, to be psychedelic. Towards the end all four of the main cast pool their resources to escape, rowing as hard as they can through the water-filled stomach of the whale—until their boat is broken. With only the momentum to carry them forward, they use whatever comes their way as leverage to propel them forwards: bits of wood... fish... a fly... Onwards they run, as the whale swallows successively large objects: a ship, an airplane (which explodes behind them), an office block, which Nishi has to navigate his way through, leaping over tables and through windows…

Then finally we see a almost identical stream of images to those which opened the movie, only with slight differences; so whereas at the start Myon caught her foot in the door of an underground train, now she doesn't. This is art-house by numbers again: repeat the same four minutes of footage with minor changes and in so doing give 'meaning' to the changes. What it actually means is not actually the issue; the fact that it's meaningful is all that's important.

In the end, Mind Game is a hodgepodge of highbrow and lowbrow; of comments about breast size and toilet jokes combined with literary references and pseudo-symbolism. Perhaps it wants to exploit the contrast in a kind of cinematic magical realism; but in my view it fails completely. Nothing represents the film better than Yan's paint dancing: it wants to be art, but it's mired in vulgarity.

Bought, watched, and offered for sale on amazon marketplace before I'd even finished it.
__________
Verdict: Weak; I wish I'd done something better with my time. It's merits are few and far between.

(Review also available at MyAnimeList; cover image taken from there).

Aufbrüch! (2009)

 - Aufbrüche! Die Umsonst & Draussen Festivals 1975-1978An impressive collection, no question about it. The box set includes the four original Umsonst & Draussen releases in re-mastered form, accompanied by a booklet containing articles and photos (most of which are available on the official release site). You can also download the albums individually from iTunes (the German store, at least).

Most of the music is in the kraut-funk style of mid-to-late 70's Embyro, which is no surprise since they were involved in setting up the festival in the first place. The first album contains perhaps the most krautrock-orientated pieces, but is unfortunately marred by the mastering being done from an LP release (the original tapes were missing). The sound improves considerably with the second album, and although the music is more focused on kraut-funk, it makes for a more consistent listen. The third and fourth releases are both double-albums, over 90 minutes each, and diversify the range of music somewhat. That's good in one way, but certainly makes them feel more like compilations that the second album.

Very few of the recordings are available elsewhere (Embryo's 'Wir sind alle politische Gefangene' was released on the re-master of Apo-Calypso as 'Prisioneri Politici'), and most of the bands are pretty obscure. That said, a large proportion of the bands involve musicians from better-know bands; some 67 minutes of the 4 1/2 hours of music feature Missus Beastly and various off-shoots, for example. Six tracks (from four bands) involve Marlon Klein of Dissidenten, who also is responsible for the re-mastering of the albums. And that's quite aside from the various Embryo-related projects. Obscure some of these formations may be, but there's no lack of musicianship.

On the (slightly) negative side, the CDs don't exactly follow the original releases—there's no way the third and fourth albums would fit onto single CDs. So all the albums (except the first) are split across at least two CDs, which breaks whatever continuity the originals had. It's better than leaving tracks off, and at least you can import the tracks into iTunes (or whatever) and make your own playlists. Also, the promotional artwork that you might see around is slightly misleading: in my edition at least, the cardboard sleeves containing the CDs are generic and do not show the original album art. That's slightly disappointing in an otherwise well-made box set.

All in all, this is a set which is greater than the sum of its parts, or at least than the individual songs it includes. Perhaps one more for the fans (of Embryo and later Missus Beastly in particular) than the casual listener, it's nevertheless a great overview of the alternative festival scene in Germany at the time.
__________

Verdict: Very good, especially for anyone interested in mid-70's krautrock.

[Review also posted on rateyoumusic]

Jethro Tull @ Festung Mark, Magdeburg

I've been a Jethro Tull fan almost as long as I've been a music fan—practically speaking, that's since the late '80s, when I heard 'Living In The Past' while camping out in a tent in the garden. Since then their output has dwindled, releasing only four albums of original recordings, although singer and flautist Ian Anderson has also released four solo albums in the same period, often including songs in the Tull set-list. That was not the case last night (13 June) when the band played the Festung Mark in Magdeburg; celebrating a 40-year anniversary, the vast majority of songs were from the very earliest part of their career.

By 'vast majority' I mean that 11 of the 17 songs in the set were from the first two albums, 1968's 'This Was' and 1969's 'Stand Up'—eight songs from the latter album alone. Maybe the band had just become fed up with playing the set-list they've been touring since March, or maybe they knew that the Magdeburg crowd would be, shall we say, unresponsive at best, but this seems to have been a fairly unique move. Gone were 'Cross-Eyed Mary', 'Sweet Dream', 'Mother Goose' and 'Living in The Past', replaced by minor songs such as 'We Used To Know' and 'Back To The Family', which Anderson described as being the worst song he'd ever written, but great fun to play live. There were grumblings in the crowd, as this wasn't the greatest hits package they wanted—after the show I heard people comment that they could have just come for the last couple of songs (the obligatory 'Aqualung' and 'Locomotive Breath').

I was having fun, though. After seeing a somewhat lacklustre performance by Deep Purple last year, I really didn't want a band reminding me of how great they once were, but aren't any more. By playing so many minor songs it was possible to just listen to Jethro Tull, rather than comparing the latest live performance of a classic to the original and countless other recordings that have been made over the years. The band were clearly playing songs they wanted to play, and having fun doing so—and that was what I wanted to see them doing. Hits be damned.

Anderson's voice has clearly lost something over the years, but it never had as much to lose as, say, Ian Gillian, so the effect is less disturbing; and his flute playing is still excellent in any case. Martin Barre remains one of the most underrated guitarists in rock; and Doanne Perry may have only been with the band for 25 years, but his drumming is as as solid as ever. Then there were two other guys who I've not seen or heard of before. They did what they needed to and no more, which was also fine, as I'm really at a Tull concert to see Anderson and Barre anyway.

In the end, a somewhat controversial performance, which I can say that I enjoyed while understanding the frustration of others. And 'Stand Up'—a great album in any case—has acquired a new level of meaning for me. I saw it played live, after all.

The Bunny Boy Video Series

*Contains spoilers*

I watched the first few episodes of The Bunny Boy Video Series by The Residents when they were originally released, but failed to keep up with them during the move to Magdeburg. Yesterday I listened to The Bunny Boy album on the way to work and decided to see what had happened to the Video Series when I got home, only to find that it had coincidentally just ended two days before, on 6 April 2009. So last night I downloaded the whole lot and sat down to watch.

Back to back, the 66 episodes (67 if you count the two-parter) take about two-and-a-half hours to watch. The episodes themselves are more like video diaries, shot from a hand-held camera by the Bunny Boy himself—who we learn is called Roger—although he eventually enlists help from a Russian friend named Igor. Most videos are single takes; cuts do creep into later episodes along with the occasional special effect (and glove puppets!), serving to undermine the impression that the videos are 'real', although I suspect that this was the intention in any case. The sleeve notes to the album state that the videos—supposedly posted to The Residents on a DVD—were the inspiration for their musical retelling, but the question of which came first is actually irrelevant. The videos describe events occurring after the release of the album, such as the Bunny Boy being persuaded to accompany the band on tour and seeking sponsorship for the show. The two approaches, video and album, essentially tell the same story through different media, rather like the stories which accompanied 2005's Animal Lover complimented the music.

The premise of the story is that Roger's brother Harvey has gone missing; not knowing where to begin searching for him, Roger records these short videos and posts them on YouTube in the hope that somebody will notice his plight and be able to offer help. Eventually clues start to come in, both from 'viewers' and by examining Harvey's belongings, and Roger is drawn to the small village of Patmos, Arkansaw. But this plot is more or less a Macguffin—Harvey is never actually found, and the only glimpses we have of him are torn up photographs. Indeed, it is never really clear whether Roger and Harvey are actually different people.

We learn that Roger went on holiday with Harvey's family to the Greek island of Patmos, where the Book of Revelation was written, and suffered a breakdown—to begin with he is unable to remember anything from the trip and is confused by a shadowy figure (himself) lurking in the family photographs. Harvey and his wife Hilda apparently became estranged after the failure of a dotcom company which Harvey attempted to launch, but Roger is still living in a 'secret room' in the basement of their house, surrounded with all sorts of paraphernalia.

Many of the scenes build on these ambiguities and can be viewed from the perspective either that Roger and Harvey are the same person, or that they are not. At one point, for example, Roger asks Harvey's daughter to make a plea for help on one of the videos, but she's too uncomfortable to do so; it isn't clear whether she's uncomfortable with recording the video for the voyeuristic public or whether the problem is rather that she finds it difficult to play along with Roger's delusions. One morning Roger wakes to discover a stack of boxes left outside his door by Hilda, apparently containing drawings and notes by Harvey; but again, we can't be sure whether Hilda passed on the notes to help Roger with his search or to snap him out of it.

But even this question is something of a Macguffin. I'm not sure that it really matters whether Roger and Harvey are the same person or not, and the lack of definitive clues seems to support this. What's important is how Roger sees the situation: that he really does have a lost brother, that signs seem to be pointing an Apocalypse which only he and Harvey can prevent, despite being consumed with doubt. If it's all a delusional fantasy, then it is still one which seems real to Roger, and all we can do is follow him. He may not actually fight the Beast in the cellar of a chicken farm, and it may all be a confrontation of himself; but then what matters is how Roger constructs his narrative.

Appropriately enough, social media such as YouTube and Twitter form an underlying critical theme in the series, as Roger attempts to get his message heard. To begin with he receives mostly spam; sympathy and criticism, when they come, are naturally from complete strangers, and both seem misplaced. He begins to don a rabbit costume when a viewer comments on his clothing, at first taking offence but quickly settling into the role. His 'viewers' become 'fans', both in his mind and in reality; in the end he receives sponsorship, with the unscrupulous Residents (!) selling the rights to his character (The Bunny Boy) and his predicament. The final episode gives us a taste of things to come, as an anonymous media company launches The All New Adventures of The Bunny Boy. What started out as a genuine plea for help is trivialised, sensationalised and commercialised: Roger is unable to keep himself separate, and his story becomes shaped by the media it adopts. This bitterness runs throughout the series: Roger is alone, occasionally indulged by those near to him, misunderstood and manipulated by those further away. The internet and social media do not really offer a solution, just more and greater disappointment.

All of this is, of course, purely interpretative. It's just what the Video Series meant to me. Others might see more in it, or less. But it's well worth watching.

The Bunny Boy Video Series can be downloaded from http://www.residents.com/bunnyboy/.

In Aller Stille, by Die Toten Hosen

Not bad at all. In Aller Stille opens with a 'We're still here!’ song which sets the tone for the rest of the album. There's less musical experimentation (or, depending on your perspective, boredom) here than the Hosen's had a decade ago, so there's no horn sections or supermarket trolleys or funk rhythms. Nevertheless, a cello creeps into a couple of pieces, as well as a duet on a ballad. And a decent ballad at that. There is a fair amount of shouting—which should please my brother—although at times it sounds a little cheesy, as do the Madonna-esque keyboards on 'Disco' (but you can't really hold that against them as that's their point). All in all it's a short, punchy album which doesn't really do anything new but does show that the Hosen's can still muster up enough passion, anger, and musicality to remain relevant. Whether it's still punk is another question.

Verdict: Good; worth hearing. RYM review.

The Bunny Boy, by The Residents

Paraniod. Psychotic. Deranged. And that’s just the music.

Like The Voice of Midnight, the last album by the famously anonymous Residents, The Bunny Boy describes a descent into madness. Except that it makes its predecessor sound like a bed-time story, which in a way it was.

To be honest, I haven’t had enough time to absorb the album, except to say that it’s excellent, so I won’t even try to write a review. It does feel a little unfinished—that is, the story doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion—but that’s only to be expected, given that the CD is the first of three elements to be undertaken.

The second, a video series, is currently being streamed on YouTube as well as being available at a higher quality for download at the official site. This latter is in mp4 and so works perfectly with iTunes. There are supposed to be three episodes released a week, and will feature completely different music to the CD.

The third element is a tour starting on 3 October. This I will kill to see.

The CD may well end up being the weakest part of the project, if the first video and recent tours are anything to go by.

One final thing: The Bunny Boy should probably come with a warning. This isn’t music that young children should hear, not unless you want them to have serious nightmares. So, in parting, I’ll leave you with some words.
There’s blood on the bunny, there’s blood on the floor
There’s blood on the funny face he adored
There’s blood on the bunny
and…there…will…be…more

The Golden Compass

Just got out of watching this for the second time today (honest!) and I have to say that I have mixed feelings. I did enjoy it more on the second viewing—as I suspected I might—because I wasn't looking for holes. Just like everyone else is doing, to make my point I'll compare it to The Lord of the Rings.

There's a scene in the theatrical version of The Fellowship of the Ring where you see a shot of Boromir in a boat looking peeved; and later, as he's dying, he seems overly enthusiastic when Aragorn say that he will save 'our' people. The meaning of the two scenes really only becomes clear in the special edition; just before the scene in the boat, Aragorn and Boromir argue, and Aragorn insists that he will never take the Ring near 'your' city. Everything falls into place with the addition of this scene. Boromir is tense because of the argument, and because he believes that Aragorn's refusal to accept his lineage will lead them all to doom; similarly, when Aragorn says 'our' rather than 'your', Boromir understands that Aragorn has finally accepted his fate: and that gives him hope in his last moments. There's an entire level of narrative and interaction between these two characters which is absent in the theatrical version, and which is essential to proper appreciation of the film.

The Golden Compass is full of these moments, or rather, full of telling omissions. It's not that it contradicts the details of Philip Pullman's excellent novel, so much as it leaves out details which lend sense to the rest of the film. Everything on the screen — aside, perhaps, from the readings of the compass itself — is great: the acting is excellent, the music is good, the digital effects superb; but somehow the whole amounts to less than the sum of its parts. It suggests the story, rather that embodying it.

If ever there was a film which truly needed an extended director's cut, this is it. It should be, and still could be, a magnificent film; but we'll have to wait and see.

(I'm looking forward to the start of the next instalment — assuming it gets made — since it should open with Roger being killed by Asriel. Maybe too bleak a way to end a film, but an awesome way to begin one. Bwah ha ha.)


In Autumn…, by Faust

I have to say, I'm less than convinced. When I bought this box set I was overjoyed: the last recording Faust released was their great collaboration with Dälek in 2004, and I was looking forward to hearing what they'd been up to since then. Such a generous offering (3 CDs and a DVD) seemed just what I needed. But these concerts, taken from a UK tour in late 2005, are not the Faust I'm used to, and are far from what I wanted. In essence, on these recordings you're listening to Faust III, and they bear little resemblance to the Faust who have been releasing albums for the past decade, after a 20-year hiatus. Gone is the seemingly organic industrial experimentation: it's been replaced by tired rehashes of past hits. Most of the tracks have unfamiliar names, and say that they are 'inspired' by Faust songs, but don't be fooled: for the most parts they are just extended jams around old riffs, and there isn't really much inspiration to be found anywhere. For the first time, Faust sound like ageing hippies.

That's not to say In Autumn… is really all that terrible, although admittedly the audio quality is pretty poor. It just sounds like the kind of thing you'd expect a band to produce on a thirty-year reunion: a pale echo of former glories. There's a bit of weirdness thrown in for good measure, and the best things on here are the completely new improvisations. But when, just a year before these recordings, Faust were pretty much cutting edge, In Autumn… comes as a shock to the system.

Recommended only if you have no idea what Faust have been doing since 1975, and you think that So Far and IV are the best things the original band recorded.

subHuman, by Recoil

So yesterday I got hold of the new Recoil album, subHuman. And pretty good it is too. It's brimming with the intense, dark atmosphere that Alan Wilder has made his own. If anything, despite the horrible prog-rock-esque artwork, this might be the least commercial thing he's released since leaving Depeche Mode. Certainly, it's the polar opposite of whatever execrable pop Depeche Mode are churning out nowadays. It’s almost as if he sucked all of the intensity out of the band when he left and honed it to perfection—impressive for an electronics wizard who only penned one—frankly awful—song for them.

Still, it's been seven years since the release of the awesome Liquid, and the first question is whether anything has changed. Yes and no. The album is arguably the most focused thing he's done, but it also lacks the diversity of its predecessor and 1997's Unsound Methods—and possibly 1992's Bloodline as well. That diversity was in some ways the strength and weakness of Recoil, and in the same way the focus of subHuman is both its strength and weakness.

Recoil pieces—I hesitate to call them songs—are usually collaborations between Wilder and a singer—directly, or sampled. Bloodline featured vocals by Moby, Toni Halliday, Douglas McCarthy, and a sampled Bukka White; Unsound Methods involved McCarthy again, Maggie Estep, Hildia Campbell and Siobhan Lynch; and Liquid enlisted the talents of Diamanda Gálas, Nicole Blackman, Samantha Coerbell, Rosa Torras, and Sonya Madden on a single b-side, while sampling The Golden Gate Quartet. That's quite a list of names, and quite a range of styles; but Wilder deftly managed to pull everything together into a coherent sound and make everything work. Still, with such a range of vocal talents, it's inevitable that some singers stand out more than others—although Samantha Coerbell's contributions are fine pieces, they're both overshadowed entirely by Nicole Blackman's. And only on the (extended) single release of Stalker do two of the artist contribute to one piece—in that case Maggie Estep and Douglas McCarthy, creating a disturbing depiction of the pursuer and the pursued.

subHuman has only two vocalists—five of the seven pieces feature bluesman Joe Richardson, with Carla Trevaskis contributing breathy vocals (which put me in mind of Kate Bush) to the remaining two. Naturally, Richardson offers the kind of continuity which was impossible on the previous albums—he's there from start to finish, lending a bluesy growl to everything. In some ways that's the problem—it isn't difficult to form the impression that subHuman takes the sonic landscape of, say 'Electro Blues for Bukka White' from Bloodline, or 'Red River Cargo' from Unsound Methods, and turns it into an entire album. Throwing your lot in with a vocalist to such an extent can be a risk for a 'band' like Recoil: much as I feel that the last Sofa Surfers album was flawed because it stuck with a single vocalist who didn't overly impress me. And so Recoil fans will either lament the diversity of subHuman, or praise its depth, continuity and sense of development. As for anyone else, well, it's hardly likely people will pick this up by chance, and people coming from Depeche Mode will probably be in for a shock.

But depth and beauty the album does have. More than perhaps anyone else out there is currently doing, Wilder is creating musical environments. Which isn't to say that it's ambient waffle—the pieces on subHuman are dramatic and richly rhythmic, building to almost cacophonic crescendos before collapsing into moments of tranquility. And there's nothing minimalist about subHuman either, but Wilder seems to do a lot without doing much—there's a sparseness and sense of economy which permeates everything, not a beat or note too much, or too little.

When it comes down to it, if you like dark, complex and, dare I say it, intellectual electronic music, you should definitely give it a spin. I can imagine it causing a something of a split amongst existing fans, but slightly confounded expectations aside, it's an album which you should listen to repeatedly to fully absorb. If possible on headphones with the lights out. And that way, you won't be able to see the artwork, either.

And if you are going to pick it up, try and get hold of the limited edition—the bonus DVD comes with PCM stereo, 24 bit DTS 5.1, and 5.1 surround versions of the main album; as well as all five of Recoil's previous promotional videos, along with new videos for 'Shunt' and 'Electro Blues for Bukka White (2000 remix)'. Perhaps most interesting, though are the 'Reduction' remixes—every piece in a more down-tempo form, lyrics (mostly?) intact, essentially offering an alternate version of the album. I can see some people preferring the reduced version to the original—the remixes are that good. The case lists the run-time as 162 minutes, if that gives you an idea of the amount of material here. Worth every penny.

10,000 Days, by Tool

It’s a cracker. Better than I expected, actually. Somehow, although 2001’s Lateralus has some great tracks, I never thought it was as good as Tool’s 1996 masterpiece Aenima. The progression wasn’t quite as marked as before, and even the greatest tracks didn’t seem epic in the same way that 'Push It' or 'Third Eye' from Aenima did. And this time round epic is back, and in a big way; although it might take a few listens to get into it all. 10,000 Days is, in my rather opinionated view, the best ‘prog’ album since Marillion’s Marbles in 2004, and the best album since Kate Bush’s comeback album Aerial last year.

10,000 Days starts off in much the manner I had feared, which is rather well. The two openers 'Vicarious' and 'Jambi' are fine Tool songs, layered and building in a way that only a few contemporary bands seem capable of. But they felt like what I was expecting, and somehow that wasn’t enough from a Tool album. It’s been five years since the last release, and I didn’t want the new album to merely do what was expected: I wanted it to surprise me. I wanted to be blown away, not think that it made a nice companion to Lateralus. And with the third track I got what I wanted.

Actually, the third track is the first of a pair entitled 'Wings For Marie (Part 1)' and '10,000 Days (Wings Part 2)'. There’s a lull of a kind between them, like gathering breath, but the two belong together, and if you want to import them onto your iPod you’ll need to use the ‘Join CD Tracks’ option to avoid a click between them. And together they clock in at 17:24. If 'Wings…' resembles anything Tool have done before musically, it’s the live version of 'Push It' from Salival, but this is still more mediative; lyrically, it’s probably the most personal thing they’ve ever been, apparently about the death of Maynard's mother. It’s long, elegant, beautifully rhythmic, and quite possibly the most ‘prog’ thing they’ve ever done. And the fact that the album is set up to lull the listener into a false sense of security with the opening tracks before engaging in such an epic is a stroke of genius. On a lesser album, 'Wings…' would be placed at the end, not before the half-way point; but by the time you’ve reached the second part, it’s clear that you’re not listening to a normal album with normal programming. This is an album which is meant to demand your attention, to snap you out of complacency, to break away from the formulaic, even when those formulas are (pretty much) unique to Tool themselves.

The next track 'The Pot' is similarly askew, beginning like some kind of a-cappella shanty which momentarily reminded me of 'Fiddle and the Drum' from A Perfect Circle’s eMOTIVe. The vocal is not quite like anything else we’ve heard from Maynard before, and is mixed louder than on the rest of the album, making it the dominant feature. The song itself is good, although after Wings… it feels like there’s a little something missing.

After that we come to the first segue on 10,000 Days, a piece called 'Lipan Conjuring', which resembles nothing if not one of Can’s 'Ethnic Forgery Series', this time with Buddhist monks as the subject. Or maybe Native Americans. Or some bizarre synthesis of the two. Whatever it is, it works, and it provides an effective break between the two parts of the album.

Then we’re back to another epic, this time 'Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann) / Rosetta Stoned', which come to a combined total of 14:57. 'Keys…' works like an introduction, with movie samples providing a narrative, while 'Rosetta…' features probably the strangest vocal Maynard has ever committed to record. I have no real idea of what it being sung throughout most of it; the voice is more like an instrument than it has ever been, and snatches of lyric float in and out of coherence. Odd references to previous songs from previous albums enter the music briefly, as if 'Rosetta…' is somehow the theme underlying much of the band’s previous work. It’s possibly the densest thing Tool have ever done, more wall-of-sound than song, and certainly comparable to the densest moments of Aenima. What it’s all about I haven’t the foggiest, but it’s tremendously good. Definitely one to play to scare your friends, or to illustrate why Tool are unlike any other so-called Metal band.

Things then seem to settle down a bit with Intension. I've heard this compared to A Perfect Circle, and although there is a certain similarity in the opening vocal, the music is more atmospheric that anything Maynard’s Other Band have done. The percussion is initially based around tabla rather than drum-kit, and as song builds there seems to be some drum programming going on - although I wouldn’t put it past Danny Carey to be playing like a drum-machine rather than using one.

With 'Right In Two' the tabla is back, and the album heads towards its conclusion. The lyric evokes the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, while the music hypnotically climbs towards a dramatic resolution. And then there’s the odd ambient/industrial piece 'Viginti Tres', and 10,000 Days is over, more than 75 minutes after it began.

My initial impression is that the new album is better than Lateralus by quite some way. I’m not in a position to compare it to Aenima yet, but then that was a masterpiece. Yet it certainly has more in common with the earlier record. All of Tool’s trademarks are here in abundance: rhythmic playing like no other Metal band, epic songs, ethereal voice, surprising arrangements and original programming. But it while it is arguably the most ‘prog’ album Tool have yet released, and also the most cohesive, my guess is that it will be less successful than Lateralus - which entered the American charts at #1. My reason for thinking this is that 10,000 Days is less bound by convention, and far less easy to pigeon-hole. It’s unlike anything else out there at the moment, and some people will undoubtedly decide that it’s cool to say it sucks. Others will find the it immensely rewarding; and I will definitely be among them.

God’s Debris, by Scott Adams

There’s a couple of things I’d like to note about the book. When I was doing philosophy at university, I wrote an essay in the form of a dialogue about Wittgenstein in a pub playing chess with a guy called Frank (because, well, he was frank *groan*). I’m mentioning it here because of the comment I got back from the assessor, which was something like: ‘Pretty good for this sort of thing, but there's always a Wittgenstein and always a Frank.’ What he meant was that there is always a great thinker who teaches a ‘normal’ guy in this kind of dialogue, and the real philosophical classics which use this form square off two equals, both of whom have good answers to the good arguments of the others (precisely what Scott said the Intelligent Design vs. evolution debate didn't have.) In the kind of dialogue which has a Wittgenstein and a Frank, or an Avatar (the Old Man) and the Courier (as in God's Debris), what you end up with one character proselytising, and the other fumbling for words in an attempt to reconcile the new teaching with what they experience in everyday life. The result is that the Frank figure ends up with their world-view being changed, but only because they were unable to see the wool being pulled over their eyes, or were unequipped to deal with the assault even if aware of it. Now, put a Wittgenstein in a room with Avatar, and we'd have a very different dialogue.

Ultimately, I can’t say whether God's Debris is in this sense a flawed dialogue, or whether that is precisely Scott’s point: that we encounter people like Avatar all the time - politicians, scientists, journalists, priests, anyone who tries to convince us of anything - and they are constantly pulling the wool over our eyes. The Wittgenstein/Avatar debate rarely happens, because Wittgenstein wouldn’t bother, and so all we have are conflicting wool-pullers trying to shout the loudest, and the rest of us simply try to work out whose mast we are going to pin our colours to. Even my talk of Wittgenstein falls into this trap, as I’m setting him up as a ideal of sceptical rationality - but he’s still a teacher.

I’m just streaming thoughts now. ‘Avatar’, my dictionary says, had two main meanings: 1) a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth - an incarnate divine teacher; and 2) an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea. My guess is that Scott intends the second: that this Old Man is the embodiment of the idea that the wool is constantly being pulled over our eyes by people who seem to have an answer for everything, but actually say nothing.

How many people are aware of Popper’s falsification theory? The idea is that any scientific proposition must be testable, and indeed, the proper aim of science is to strive to falsify current theories, because no matter how much evidence you amass in support of a theory, just one iota of contradictory evidence will relegate it to the scrap-heap of history. Popper isn't talking science as such, but philosophy of science, or about the scientific attitude, if you will. And what was striking in the ID/evolution discussion on Scott’s blog was that the evolutionists would brook no challenge, merely amassing evidence upon evidence, which is scientifically irrelevant (and now I will be accused of being an ID supporter and an armchair philosopher). Yet we’re all familiar with the legal concept of ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ - that although there may be enough evidence to convict someone, such a conviction in no way represents The Truth, and should other evidence come to light at a later date the ruling may be overturned. So why is it that science (by which I mean the ID/evolution debate specifically, although it goes further than that, I’m sure), which historically championed knowledge over belief, has forgotten the principles on which it should be based and reverted to a form of belief? - Why? Because we’re all humans.

I mention Popper’s theory because the Introduction to God’s Debris reminded me of it: Scott warns the reader to be sceptical and try and work out what's wrong with what Avatar says. If you meet someone who seems to have a simple answer for everything, the only healthy response is to try and find out what is wrong with it. However, that isn’t a thought experiment, but a puzzle: we’re warned by the author that much of what Avatar says isn’t true, that it is simplistic, and we should be on our guard. A thought experiment would rather be, for example, to see how may readers would get to that point without being told to do so, or better still, how many readers, despite being forewarned, would still have their world-view radicalised. My guess is that this is the thought experiment, or rather, experiment in thought: will you like it, love it, hate it, analyse it, contradict it, absorb it; will it change your life, make you start a new religion, challenge your preconceptions, or convince you that Scott Adams is utterly vacuous and writes things he knows nothing about? The experiment is on us, as far as I can see, and another guess I’m willing to make is that this is the main reason why Scott made this e-book free: to find out how the experiment is going, by getting all of us to email him feedback and make posts on his blog. Just a guess, mind you, since I’m also quite willing to take Scott at his word when he says, ‘You won’t discover my opinions by reading my fiction.’ That should be obvious, but how many people will think that the rest of God’s Debris is actually What Scott Thinks and that this disclaimer is in fact the only lie in the book?

An interesting and provocative read, then, which I’m not going to claim that I understand the motives behind. But even if I met Scott in a pub and he told me what it was about, I’m still not sure I’d believe him ;-)

I know this post has turned into a bit of a rant, but I wanted to make another (semantic) point: the word ‘omnipotent’ is frequently misused in God’s Debris to mean ‘omniscient’, and maybe also ‘omnipresent’. ‘Omnipotent’ means all-powerful, ‘omniscient’ means all-knowing and ‘omnipresent’ means ‘in all places and times’. Much of the discussion at the start of the book is about God being omnipotent and therefore knowing everything, i.e. being omniscient. It is very easy to imagine a being who knew everything but was powerless to act, and also one which was all powerful but did not know the future, the past, or even the present - problem of God’s Free Will solved! Generally, God is said to be all three, but any one does not necessarily entail the others. Whether this confusion is intentional (as in, intended to confuse the Courier and/or the reader) or erroneous, I can’t say. But I quite like the idea of an amnesiac God.

Incidentally, I’m well aware of the innuendo in the third paragraph above ;-)

Matrix: Reloaded, directed by the Wachowski Brothers

Many people do not seem to have liked the start of Matrix: Reloaded, which does take some time to get going.  I’ve heard comments about the messianic-depiction of Neo at the start, and that the film is too much “Neo Christ Superstar”.  Not fair, in my view.  The film starts with his dream about Trinity dying, which lends a more fatalistic tone to everything which follows.  He seems burdened by his responsibility when he arrives home to find people seeking his help.  And it isn’t Neo who gives an uplifting speech to the people of Zion, it is Morpheus.  And the people seem to revere (worship?) Morpheus just as much.  As for the speech, it was pleasantly surprising.  After the drum-banging of The Two Towers (which Peter Jackson admittedly tries to tone down), the simple realism of Morpheus’ was like a breath of fresh air.  There was none of the glory-of-those-about-to-die about the speech, the main sentiment being that, although they had been at war with the machines for a century, they still hadn’t been defeated: they would survive as they always had. Give me that over the “we shall die in such a way as will be worthy of a song” rubbish of The Lord Of The Rings any day.

More important is the way in which the film resembles that of Peter Jackson.  Both films seem to be in the process of re-inventing what it means to write a sequel. The Empire Strikes Back, in which the good guys lose and the hero loses his hand in a fight, had an attempt at this in the early 1980’s, but no-one seemed to take up the gauntlet until recently (Terminator 2 almost did).  Both films treat the audience with some respect by implicitly saying, we know you’ve seen the first film and you understand what is going on; we’re not going to patronise you with background which you already know.  Neither film has any introductory sequences for the main characters or story.  If you haven’t seen the first film, you won’t have a clue what is going on in the second.  It might sound arrogant, but this is good.  The very nature of a sequel is to sell itself on the back of its predecessor’s success (a series is somewhat different, however).  Why should films with complex story-lines like The Lord Of The Rings or The Matrix recapitulate what took 2 or 3 hours to develop in the first part for the benefit of those who go to watch a second part of a trilogy without watching the first part?  Answer: they shouldn’t.  Nobody who went to see Matrix: Reloaded wanted a simple re-hash of the first film: they wanted a development.  They wanted to see how the story went on, what would happen next, not merely the same story retold with new special effects and different actors, as is all to often the case in sequels.  There is a kind of anti-populism in these films which is a good sign, in my opinion: they are not made for the ignorant fools who went to see The Fellowship Of The Ring and were disappointed that it didn’t have a proper ending.  It is an attitude which says “It’s a trilogy, stupid!” and which I find utterly refreshing.  It is anti-formulaic: repeating the formula is not enough.  It is brave: it risks alienating a section of the audience.  And for Hollywood at least, it is subversive: it shows how well it is possible to do a sequel, which will heighten the contrast with the populist pap that is usually churned out.

Matrix: Reloaded does this without changing the basic story of its predecessor, a common device of sequels (see Highlander 2 for a particularly bad application of this rule: it turns out that they’re aliens!).  The world of both films is the same: nothing had to be tweaked in order to introduce the new story.  The excellent Agent Smith was not replaced by a new and supposedly more dangerous Agent Smith character (who would have made short work of the hero of the last film) but with a re-invented Smith, whose own development is intertwined with Neo’s.  Old allies, such as The Oracle, are recast in a new but consistent light; new foes are introduced who would simply not have been interested in the events of the first film.  And because of the generally familiar cybernetics context, new concepts are able to be introduced which require no justification to the audience: “programs hacking programs” as Neo says at one point regarding the exiled programmes we meet at various stages of the film, or the idea of programmer ‘backdoors’ which require the correct key to be opened.  All this means that Matrix: Reloaded feels like a worthy extension of the original, and if its a little complicated at times, that just leaves you talking about it when you leave the cinema.

I have heard the suggestion that the film is really only commerce, trying to make you watch the third part when it comes out.  If you’ve read everything I’ve written so far, you’ll know that I don’t think that’s true.  Certainly, we have a multi-media bombardment, but that’s been true of much-hyped films for years.  And if the computer game (to take one example) is so well integrated into the story of the film as it is supposed to be then that is raising the stakes of tie-ins.  I have no problem with multi-media capitalism anyway, just with dumb multi-media capitalism.

Another thing that I was pleased wasn’t missing was the humour.  The first Matrix was near-spoof at some points, and the stylish tongue-in-cheek nature of the film was what made it so superior to many other ‘action’ movies.  There is perhaps not as much in the second film, although some of the humour will become apparent after several viewings, I’m sure (like the Morpheus’ explanation that within the Matrix, your physical form is “the mental projection of your digital self” - er, really? Like, I have a digital self?).  But a couple of points stood out.  “He’s doing his Superman thing again” says the new operator Link as he watches Neo flying off into the blue.  And as Neo leaves The Architect and the building explodes behind him we get a old fashioned fist-clenched outstretched-arm flying routine straight out of DC Comics. Übercool.  When Smith leaps on a unsuspecting rebel who cries “Oh, God!”, Smith replies “Smith will suffice.” Or when Neo meets The Architect, who tells him that “the most obvious question is also the most irrelevant”; Neo, not having much in the way of grey matter, asks “Why am I here?”  And to cap it all, when The Architect, who likes the sound of his own voice, pauses for breath, Neo, in a flash of insight observes that “You still haven’t answered my question”; The Architect replies “Quite right. Interesting: you noticed faster than your predecessors” and proceeds to talk about something else entirely.  When Trinity lies dead in his arms, Neo resolves to try and bring her back to life on the basis that “I just love you too damn much”; her first words are “Now we’re even”.  Side splitting it isn’t, but this kind of almost-corny self-awareness saves both films from disappearing up their own behinds, which given the amount of stylised violence and neo-mystical pseudo-science is absolutely crucial.  “There is no spoon” from the original film is still one of my favourite cinematic lines ever.  And even if other people think that the films are true, the saving grace of the films is that they don’t take themselves so seriously.  After all: its a film, stupid!

Matrix: Reloaded - Speculations

Impressed I am.  Saw the film on Friday (well, actually I saw the film twice on Friday).  It is what I had hoped the second film would be and more.  The basic conceptual problem which the Wachowski Brothers would have to deal with in this film was the fact that at the end of the original Matrix , Neo overcomes his archenemy and becomes pretty much invincible.  During the last sequence he even seems able to freeze the Matrix.  So how, with such a powerful lead character, do you write a second and third film?  So far the Wachowskis have succeeded brilliantly.

During the first fight in the film Neo is confronted with three Agents and when they appear clearly faster than before he observes wryly, “Upgrades.”  They don’t last long, however, and its also the last time in the film that Neo will fight Agents.  Much more interesting is that his archenemy has become his nemesis.  No full explanation is given, but good old Agent Smith is back.  Having been destroyed by Neo, he has instead been “set free” and is no longer an Agent of the system.  The suggestion is that “perhaps some code was copied or overwritten”: in other words, when Neo destroyed the original Agent Smith some of the base computer code which comprises everyone in the Matrix was altered and Agent Smith acquired some part of Neo’s uniqueness.  And this uniqueness has transformed into multiplicity: his freedom from the system has given him the ability to overwrite the code of others himself, be they ordinary civilians, rebels or indeed other Agents.  He tries to pull the same trick on Neo, but nothing is ever that simple: Neo, after all, is The One.  But the impression is that, if Smith could defeat Neo and “overwrite his code” he would assimilate much (if not all) of Neo’s power and become an Anti-One.  The net result is that Agent Smith, at this point, is invincible.  We are treated to a fight scene in which increasing numbers of Smiths arrive, eventually numbering a hundred or so.  Echoes of the Hydra myth of Greek mythology, maybe, where when one head is cut off, two grow back to replace it.  In the myth, you had to quickly cauterise the wound with fire before the heads can regenerate; Neo needs some such fire but lacks it at the moment.  In the end he does what Cypher advised in the first film and runs.  We bump into Smith again a couple of times in the film, but if you stayed and watched the credits to the end, you’ll have seen the trailer for the third film and know that Smith is being set up to be the big baddie there (“If you can’t defeat him tonight, tomorrow it will be too late”).

We are also introduced to another group of programmes (?people?) with more autonomy than your average Agent.  We learn that The Oracle of the first film is one such programme, along with her bodyguard ?Seriph? (who seems to play a part in the third film) and a strange character called The Merovingian.  He has kidnapped The Keymaker, who our intrepid heroes need in order to fulfill the prophecy that, when The One reaches the Core (of the computer system), the war will be over.  Thus ensues a great deal of fighting, the good guys eventually winning.

What is interesting here is that, in contrast to the first film where there are simply good guys and bad guys, in the second film there are at least four groups of antagonists: the rebels, the Agents, Smith(s) and independents like The Merovingian.  While some are clearly good and some bad, others are ambiguous and others may simply stand for chaos and fight everyone.  The result is a much more complex set of motivations and relations which does the film no end of good, and I’m sure will be further developed in the third part of the trilogy.

At the end of the film (which was more conclusive than I’d imagined it would be) Neo does reach the Core and meets a perhaps rather too god-like chap called The Architect.  They have an extraordinarily complex conversation which throws more than one spanner in the works.  The story moves to a meta-level, where the rebellion against the machines is actually part of the programme, and has indeed been run five times before.  The One is an integral part of the programme, basically allowing it to be rebooted (which, I take it, is what was meant by “the war will be over”).  As far as I understand it, the idea is this: as Agent Smith said in the original film, the human mind rejected the first Matrix because it was too perfect, and ever since the machines have been updating and refining the programme until it reaches a tolerable level of efficiency.  If The Architect is the father of the Matrix, The Oracle is its Mother: she (the programme) realised that at about 99% of the time the human mind would accept the Matrix if it was given a choice at even a sub-conscious level.  However, the 1% that did not would become increasingly dangerous as their numbers expanded.  So the machines introduced The One, who would be able to lead the rebels onwards with hope, until the reached the point of directly challenging the core of the system, whereupon they would unwittingly reboot the system and restart the whole (now refined process) from the beginning.  Next time, however, only 0.5% would reject the Matrix, then 0.25% and so on.  This is, as I said, the sixth time the programme has been run, which explains why The Oracle knows what will happen in the future: because it already has five times.  It also casts her role in the in the first film in a somewhat different light: she is doing research into all the “potentials” which we see in her flat, such as the boy with the spoon, in order to improve the Matrix programme so that these anomalies do not arise next time.  And don’t forget that Morpheus said that The Oracle freed the first of the rebels; to facilitate the research, it seems.  Hence the entire underground uprising is anticipated and planned by the machines, more or less like keeping a database of software bugs.

At the end of meeting with The Architect, Neo is given a choice: go through the door on the left and save the entire human population (by rebooting the programme), or go through the door on the left and save the life of Trinity (who has just been shot by an Agent).  Love-struck as he is, Neo chooses to save Trinity, but by this stage in the game we’ve no idea whether that was indeed what he was meant to do. Trinity dies (as was prophesied, but since she dies within the Matrix, Neo is able to give her code a little tweak and in effect give her the kiss of life.  They return to the Nebuchcadnezzar and Neo tells Morpheus some of what happened (I think he left out the bit about the sixth run, though) and Morpheus, understandably, has a crisis of faith.  He has lived by the Prophecy all his life and now it has not come true: the war is not over even though The One reached the Core.  Then we are treated to yet another twist: Sentinels turn up and ambush the ship and it is destroyed by a bomb (looked more like a missile to me, though).  The crew escape, are about to be killed by the Sentinels when Neo stops, saying that “something has changed”, turns round to face the Sentinels and, rather as he does with bullets, stops them dead in their tracks.  The Sentinels short-circuit and crash to the ground; Neo follows them, the physical exertion being too much. And that, pretty much, is the end of the film (I’m purposefully leaving out the odd spoiler).

What is going on here?  When Neo faces the Sentinels, it is not in the Matrix but in the “real” world, although he appears to have Matrix-like powers, even if their physical toll is extremely great.  I see two possibilities here, which have quite different implications. One is that this supposedly “real” world of the Sentinels, the hovercraft and Zion is all in fact part of a deeper meta-programme. What we have previously know as the Matrix is in truth a Matrix-within-a-Matrix, rather like a Russian doll, and everything we have seen so far in the films has been within this meta-programme: we have not yet seen the “real” world.  People living wiithin the Matrix believe it is real; those who have escaped the Matrix believe that they have escaped to reality, but that would be seen to be just as false, if only they could escape to the next level, and it could be that Neo is beginning that escape.  The story of meta-Matrixes, however, could go on to infinity.  Alternatively, it could be that the borders between the Matrix and the non-Matrix worlds is becoming blurred; there is a “strange loop” (to use Douglas Hofstadter’s phrase from Gödel, Escher, Bach) between the worlds, such that Neo will be increasingly able to use Matrix-like powers within the world of the machines and that the conclusion of the trilogy will involve these powers.  This does not have to be a contradiction in the logic of the film.  One explanation is that it occurs as a by-product of the increasing refinement of the Matrix.  In The Architect’s constant striving for efficiency in the system, The One will become correspondingly efficient, perhaps in ways unforeseen.  And it could be do do with the bond with Smith: Smith has become free from the bounds of the machines and is able to inhabit human minds from his encounter with Neo, and in a parallel way Neo has become able to “feel” (his word) and control the machines.  I’m tempted to go this way: we’re not watching the third incarnation of The One, because that went according to plan (from the machines’ point of view), but the sixth, because in the end it doesn’t go according to plan.  And the bond with Smith seems the most likely source of that at this point.


A Passion Play, by Jethro Tull

At last! Finally my favourite Jethro Tull album has been re-mastered and re-issued! This may seem unworthy of comment, but, having released the ‘classic’ Tull albums of Aqualung (1971) and Thick As A Brick (1972) some time ago, EMI recently set about re-issuing all the Tull albums starting with the first album This Was (1968), followed by the second album Stand Up (1969) and the third album Benefit (1970). Then for some reason they leapfrogged A Passion Play and released the next three albums, War Child (1974), Minstrel In The Gallery (1975) and Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die (1976). I was beginning to despair. Then last weekend I found it, re-issued out of sequence with Songs From The Wood (1977) and Heavy Horses (1978). I still don’t see the logic of this, but at least the CD (and naturally the other two) has finally made its way into my record collection.

My relationship to Jethro Tull’s music has been complex. They have passed through so many styles and phases during their career that I have found myself liking different records or series of records at different times. This is to some extent natural for anyone who listens to a lot of music, but Tull seem to have experimented with directions more than most and I’ve found myself growing into their various developments. I began with the late 80's rock phase of Crest Of A Knave (1987), for which Tull somewhat farcically won a Heavy Metal award (over Metallica!), and Rock Island (1989). Then progressed backwards to the greatest hits of the early 70’s. Then rocketed forward to the early 80’s electronics of The Broadsword And The Beast (1982). Then backward again to the late '70s folk-based albums. The two albums I would not part with now are are A Passion Play and Minstrel In The Gallery. The point is really that at each time I thought I knew Tull and knew what I liked, only to rediscover them again later (A Passion Play became a foil for my increasingly electronic-dance orientated musical tastes), so I’ve been spared the nostalgia of ‘I used to listen to this’ but have instead found that Tull have remained relevant to my musical environment, from the beginning on, in a way that no other band have.

A Passion Play is the most complicated album Tull recorded, and, following Thick As A Brick, the second and last album to be 45 minutes of continuous music. And 45 minutes it is, rather than two sections of 23-ish minutes. In that comment lies my first criticism of every CD release. On both Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play, there is a sense of trying to overcome the physical constraints of the medium of a vinyl record. The end of the first side of Thick As A Brick fades out and the second side fades in from the same point. On A Passion Play there is an interval song, 'The Story of the Hare who Lost his Spectacles', and the bridge occurs in the middle of the story, during a natural pause after the main characters have been introduced. In fact the album anticipates the CD medium with its single side, and it was not until being issued on CD that this endeavour was truly fulfilled. However, every CD I’ve seen begins the second part of the album from the beginning of 'The Story…' . It would be more appropriate to begin from the middle, as the vinyl did, or to dispense with such divisions altogether, in acknowledgement of what the album was trying to do.

'The Story of the Hare who Lost his Spectacles' is an oddity amongst Jethro Tull songs in that it is narrated, and indeed not even by Ian Anderson, but by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. Musically it is a psychedelic mutation of Peter And The Wolf filtered through Winnie-The-Pooh and only flirts with what we would recognise as Rock in the last few bars. But the words are the key for me: the punning makes you cringe in delight. On the newly re-mastered release, we are treated to a 7-minute promotional video of 'The Story…', complete with ballerinas, the dancing of oversized animals and frantic editing. As you watch this or listen to the music, it’s worth bearing in mind that only two years previously Tull had been bracketed in much the same category as Led Zeppelin, and yet this is about as far from Heavy Metal or Hard Rock as it’s possible to get.

The words and lyrical plays are part of what makes the album so impressive. Perhaps the best line is on the second side: 'I’d give up my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had'. Overall, the album is about death and possibly life afterwards, beginning as it does with a funeral. Yet, 30 years after its original release, it is not only the lyrics which make the album rewarding. Released in the same year as the ‘definitive’ concept album, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, A Passion Play is for me the better recording, and a major part of the reason is the music. A Passion Play is more unified musically than The Dark Side Of The Moon; the latter is really just songs which cross-fade, whereas the former has an ‘approach’ and a sense of continuous development. The music often is among Jethro Tull's most playfully eccentric, flowing in and out of seeming incoherence. The opening instrumental, for example, has an inverted 'Teddy-bear's Picnic' quality (which reminds me of the truly disturbing start of Faust’s eponymous 1971 album) before turning to the apparent gravity of funeral described in the lyrics. Regular song structures are rare, while repeated motifs tie the various sections together. There’s still a lot of acoustic guitar in there, but there’s also a lot of jazz-based rhythm and extreme contrasts of electric to acoustic and wild to ethereal.

The strange thing is that this album marked the turn of critical acclaim for Tull. The critics hated it, and for some reason have never recovered. Maybe part of the problem was that Ian Anderson seemed to resent being put into a category. Or maybe that he gave the impression of not caring whether they liked him and his music or not. Maybe the swing between introspective albums (A Passion Play and Minstrel…) and extroverted albums (War Child and Too Old…) meant that Tull were hard to get a grip on. And maybe it was simply a bandwagon that everyone got onto, and a guy playing a flute whilst standing on one leg is an easy target. But whatever the reason, Jethro Tull remain unpopular amongst critics and are for some reason considered to highlight the excesses of the 1970’s prog-rock scene, even though their music has dated better than much of Pink Floyd’s, never had the classical bombast of Yes, ELO or even Deep Purple, and Martin Barre’s guitar playing never degenerated into widdling and 40-minute solos.

And if you want more, then the 1993 compilation Nightcap is essential. The double CD set contains the original session for A Passion Play, recorded in France and labelled under The Chateaux D'Isater Tapes. Although much of the material was simply abandoned, some of the pieces, especially instrumentals, crop up again on A Passion Play, sometimes with alternative lyrics. For the full 'Passion Play Sessions', of course, you need to have War Child too, since 'Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of The New Day' and 'Bungle In The Jungle' were also recorded at the ‘Chateaux D'Isaster', along with Solitaire, which appears in its original form on Nightcap. The compilation makes it easier to tie up various threads in this period of Anderson's writing, as for example with the animal metaphors and 'Law Of The Bungle'.

All in all, a work of eccentric genius, in my opinion, closer to avant-garde than Rock. The critical headlines of 'Play without Passion' could not be further from the truth. Certainly a difficult album to listen to, but well worth the effort of trying. Still vibrant and inspiring 30 years after the original release.

Elephant, by The White Stripes

Great album. There’s nothing original about what the brother-and-sister (?) team known as The White Stripes are doing, but they just do it very well. At the moment I’m missing the two albums between their first album and this, their fourth, but I’d have to say that there hasn’t been any progress as such. You’ll see what I mean if you compare this album to Placebo’s recently released fourth album, which sounds completely different to their first. The White Stripes still have their feet firmly planted in Led Zeppelin’s first to third albums, even though other references creep in there every so often. But they’ve simply got better at it.

I don’t know of many other bands out there that do the Led Zeppelin-filtered blues-rock as well as The White Stripes. Of course they could be accused of being retro (and in the words of Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, “Fuck retro anything”), but I think the truth is more subtle than that. The White Stripes are just plain old-school rock music with edge; there is no bombast about it, no pretence of being intense in an attempt to sell more records, and there is a sense of humour in much of what they do (witness the last song on this album, 'Well It's True That We Love One Another'). Unlike self-styled indie-drivel like Nickelcack (sorry, -back) or Puddle of Crud (sorry, Mudd), The White Stripes don’t wear Led Zeppelin T-shirts in order to gain ‘Rock’ credibility whilst regurgitating their insipid rubbish; you listen to their records and hear the influence of the music, and get the impression that they play the music they do simply because they love it.

The influence of Led Zeppelin is everywhere, although as I’ve indicated, only the first three blues-based albums of 1968-1970. Jack White’s impression of Robert Plant has to be heard to be believed, even if he can’t quite reach the high notes, and his guitar playing is clearly inspired by Jimmy Page. The 7-minute 'Ball and Biscuit' is a fully at home in the epic-blues-drama that Led Zep perfected on 'Since I've Been Loving You' on III. But as I’m listening to the record, I’m reminded of the other ‘Class of '68’ bands on occasion. 'The Hardest Button To Button' begins almost identically to 'No-One Came' from Deep Purple’s 1972 Fireball; Jack's singing on 'Hypnotize' is reminiscent of Purple’s Ian Gillan, and 'The Air Near My Fingers' reminds me of another Purple song, 'Hush'. The crunch of the middle section on 'Black Math' strikes me as a more than a passing reference to Black Sabbath, but in general when they crunch The White Stripes have more of The Stooges about them than Sabbath, as on 'Little Acorns'.

I guess it might be harder to appreciate fully what The White Stripes are doing if you don’t get the musical background, but the fact is that they rock in a way that very few bands do anymore. Fans of their predecessors might complain that we should bypass them and listen to the originals, but that’s not fair. For a start, Led Zep aren’t around anymore. Secondly, just as Nirvana were doing something important by attempting to decapitate the mullet-rock of the 80’s, not by doing anything original but by re-invigorating punk, The White Stripes are like a breath of fresh air in the foul-smelling morass which is today’s rock scene. And if it is any comfort to the old rockers who cringe at the thought of Led Zep and Purple being bundled into the same category as The Spice Girls in record shops, at least the fact that The White Stripes are to be found in the Indie section should offer some consolation. Good old-fashioned rock music is decidedly alternative in this day and age, and The White Stripes are doing it like no one else.

Solaris, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Man has gone out to explore other worlds without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.
—Stanislaw Lem, 'Solaris', translated by Joanne Kilmartin and Steve Cox

Earth? I thought of the great bustling cities where I would wander and lose myself, and I thought of them as I had thought of the ocean on the second or third night, when I had wanted to throw myself upon the dark waves. I shall immerse myself among men. I shall be silent and attentive, an appreciative companion. There will be many acquaintances, friends, women - and perhaps even a wife. For a while, I shall have to make a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand and perform all those gestures which constitute life on Earth, and then those gestures will become reflexes again. I shall find new interests and occupations; and I shall not give myself completely to them, as I shall never again give myself completely to anything or anybody.
—Stanislaw Lem, 'Solaris'

What can I usefully say about this film except ‘watch it’? It is, to my mind, one of the best and most poignant films released in some time, with more than a passing relation to Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue. I read Stanislaw Lem’s book (which was written in 1961) a few years ago and was so moved that I was unable to scribble a few words about it onto the back of a postcard, as I was trying to do at the time with all the books that I read. It was captivating, but also one of those books (or ideas) that when you try to summarise end up sounding tacky or sentimental. So here goes. What Lem achieves in this book is to confront us with the limits and arrogance of ourselves by confronting us with ourselves; not with our greed or avarice, but with our love and guilt. All the people on the Station are confronted not with their wickedness but with their loved ones, who in some way they feel they have betrayed. So Lem avoids moralising about the weakness and frailty of humans, and instead asks a question which addresses all of us: how would we react when faced with the resurrection of someone we loved but who has now gone, and who we know we hurt? This is an painfully difficult question, and it requires imagination to consider.

Lem plays masterfully with the genre of science fiction, since the genre necessarily demands a certain suspension of belief (there aren't any aliens and space ships that we know of), but he uses this suspension to present us with a truly human question without having to divulge how it is possible. In a ‘realistic’ drama the audience will demand some kind of explanation, but here Lem can just indicate that the planet is responsible and this will be accepted. Indeed, a large portion of the book is concerned with telling the reader why there is no further explanation. It is a masterpiece of the genre and truly closer in conception to Shakespeare than Star Wars.

And so too is the film, which is a skilful rendition of the book as well as a variation on its themes. The attention to detail is impressive: at one point Rheya (Natascha McElhone) noticeably blinks - as if in answer to Kris's question in the book about whether she even did so. The initial transmission from Gibarian asking for help does not occur in the book, but it is broadcast via the Prometheus, the ship on which Kris (George Clooney) arrives at the Station in the book. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the novel. There are necessarily changes, since no film is able to capture the breadth of such a work: most obvious is the lack of history (in which the book is a clear kin of the 1936 novel War With The Newts, by fellow master science fiction writer and inventor of the word ‘robot’, Karel Čapek). In the novel, Lem is at pains to describe the origin and development of ‘Solaristics’ - the study of the ocean which covers the planet - partly to give us a sense of place, in which he succeeds tremendously, and partly to show us the continued failure of the human mind, firstly to make Contact with the alien ocean, and secondly to understand why the attempts keep failing. The sense of place is there in the film, as we look over the frankly beautiful graphic depiction of the ocean, accompanied by Cliff Martinez's excellent near-minimalist score. But the film focusses on the two central characters: Kris’s struggle to come to terms with Rheya’s presence and his own past, and, endowed as she is with all the human faculties of understanding, Rheya’s deepening sense that she is herself somehow not right and her inability to live with this realisation. The result is a bitter turmoil of emotions, all of which culminates in Rheya’s first attempted and then successful suicide. Kris, having lost Rheya, seemingly regained her, and lost her again, remains in the Station, unable to re-enter everyday life.

At this point the film takes its largest departure from the book: in the book Kris accepts that “I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.” In the film, the Station is in the process of crashing into the planet and Kris chooses death. Kris, by dying in the ocean becomes part of it, he and Rheya finally reunited. At the end of the film, as at the end of the book, I was still captivated.

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