The Null Device
I am writing this on a train to London from Birmingham, where I have spent the past two days at an academic conference about the electronic music group Kraftwerk. There were some 175 people in attendance; their ages varied from those who had not yet been born during Kraftwerk's heyday to a sizeable contingent of (mostly) men of a certain age who had been at various legendary shows back in the early 80s. The conference, whilst theoretically an academic conference, was open to the general public, and the talks presented varied from critical-theoretical analyses of the signifiers in various records to autobiographical monologues.
The conference began with Stephen Mallinder, of Cabaret Voltaire, talking autobiographically about his own experience of Kraftwerk and how they inspired his and his bandmates' own music-making; he mentioned that, back in the 1970s, he and his mates would refer to traffic cones as “kraftwerks”. Later, Nick Stevenson talked specifically about Cabaret Voltaire, the Sheffield scene, their use of Dadaist techniques and Burroughs' cut-up technique, and the themes of “the control culture” in their music. Other than that, the rest of of the first day was occupied with going through Kraftwerk's early career and first few albums, as well as the “archaeological period” of the three pre-Autobahn albums one gets the impression Ralf Hütter would rather were struck from the historical record. David Stubbs, author of the recent Krautrock book Future Days, talked about this period, tracing the band's history from their shambolic start as The Organisation (which, in surviving footage of live performances, looks like an “on-the-nose parody of Krautrock” in all its scruffy, hippie shambolicness), through the first three albums—Kraftwerk 1 (whose pastoral sound prefigured what Boards Of Canada would do several decades later), Kraftwerk 2 (where the potential of drum machines first appeared) and Ralf & Florian (which, in its title and cover photograph, showed the artists starting to make themselves part of the artwork, perhaps echoing Gilbert & George, who had visited Düsseldorf in that period). This was followed by a talk by David Pattie, a Glaswegian academic, elaborating on Ralf & Florian and from that, the question of Kraftwerk's relationship with Germanness. Among other things, Pattie pointed out a progression in the works of Kraftwerk and other West German bands (Can, Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Neu! and Kluster/Cluster) through the early 70s; a divergence from pure rhythm and/or noise and rediscovery of melody in subsequent albums, and put forward the theory that all these bands had initially set out to reject the musical heritage of their forefathers, and gradually come to an accommodation with it.
In the afternoon, Melanie Schiller (from Düsseldorf, via Groningen) examined Autobahn and its cover artwork, examining the use of space in the sound and the past, present and future as depicted in the LP artwork, and the sense of forward motion, and of there being a start (the sound of the key in the ignition) but not an end (the road going on forever ahead; the self-referential lyrics referring to turning the radio on and hearing the song on it, forming a loop), and, of course, the Beach Boys reference alluding to the American car-song trope. This was followed by a talk by Hillegonda Rietveld about the Trans-Europa Express album; its theme of a borderless, unified Europe, the echoes of an elegant/decadent pre-war past (Neonlicht has a vaguely Weimar feel to it), and its musical antecedents (such as Pierre Schaeffer's 1948 Musique Concréte sound-poem etude aux chemins de fer, and parallels with railway rhythms in the blues in America). The final talk of the day, by Uwe Schütte, about Die Mensch-Maschine, and the idea of the Man-Machine, was rich with details and connections; he tied in Soviet structuralism (the cover artwork drew heavily on El Lissitzky's compositions), a notorious (though in today's climate, quaintly tame) 18th-century atheist pamphlet titled L'Homme-Machine, musical automata throughout the ages, a French novelty act named Les Robots Music, E.T. Hoffmann's 1817 Romantic novel Der Sandmann, Karel Čapek's Rossum's Universal Robots, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and the evolution of Kraftwerk's own stage robots. After this, former Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flür was to read from his memoir, I Was A Robot, but was somehow unable to make it; in his stead, Rüdiger Esch (formerly of electro-industrial band Die Krupps) spoke about his book Electri_City, about the history of the Düsseldorf music scene.
The second day of the conference had a few more interesting talks; Pertti Grönholm spoke about the nostalgic retrofuturism in the music of Kraftwerk, specifically singling out the Autobahn B-side Morgenspaziergang, a short pastoral tone-poem of sorts, and Radioland, with its nostalgia for childhood radio listening. Ulrich Adelt (an academic from Hamburg based in Wyoming) talked about Amon Düül II and their unsuccessful Made In Germany novelty record, Faust (who played with the whole idea of authenticity by projecting footage of their guitarist playing a solo while he stood still), the leftist squatter blues-rock/proto-punk band Ton Steine Scherben (who never made much of an impact outside of the German-speaking world) and the Kosmische Musik movement and their prefiguration of what would later devolve into the New Age genre, finally finishing by boldly attempting to reclaim Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer for the Krautrock genre. This led into a monologue from Rusty Egan, former Blitz Club DJ and drummer from new-romantic synthpop band Visage, Camden nightclub proprietor and currently still a working music producer and DJ. Egan was not so much an academic speaker as a force of nature; attired in jeans, turtleneck and leather jacker, all black, his hair slicked back, he went on for over an hour, pacing the stage, showing photographs on his laptop, playing fragments of tracks he had worked on recently, and telling anecdote after anecdote, often framed with sound effects, funny voices, hand gestures and beatboxing. One gets the feeling he could easily have gone on for another few hours, had it not been time to adjourn for lunch.
After the break, there were three more talks: Heinrich Deisl (who edits an Austrian music magazine titled Skug, which is a little like The Wire, only in German) talked about the metaphors of the Autobahn and the German forest in the music of Kraftwerk, Wolfgang Voigt and the Detroit techno project Dopplereffekt (who, like most Detroit techno artists, are African-American, but affect a stylised Germanness in their art; one of their albums is titled Gesamtkunstwerk). Alexei Monroe spoke about Laibach, their own relationship to modernism and problematic history, and their engagement with dystopian ideology. Finally, Alexander Harden talked about the topic of post-human authenticity, and the question of how one can ascribe authenticity (or its absence) to an act like Kraftwerk.
One theme that kept emerging in the talks was that of Kraftwerk's (and, to a lesser extent, other bands') relationship to the idea of Germany and Germanness, and the country's problematic history. In the late 60s and early 70s, the trauma and shame of the Third Reich and World War 2 was still relatively recent; most night porters in Düsseldorf hotels (as Rusty Egan mentioned) had missing limbs, the British music press made crude Nazi references when faced with the idea of there being bands from Germany, and the youth of the nation were waking up to the idea of post-war denazification having been largely unsuccessful, and of people in positions of power having done terrible things. The idea of Germany was contaminated by Nazism, and so was a lot of its much-vaunted culture, to which music had been central. There was the very real idea of Stunde Null, hour zero, of there being nothing before 1945 worth salvaging; and, indeed, a lot of the Krautrock bands started partly with this assumption, rejecting both the Western classical canon and the Anglo-American blues/rock-based sounds that were filling the airwaves, and venturing outward, to the extremes of experimental noise, the “ethnographic forgeries” of Can, to heavy psychedelic experimentation or the sounds of an imagined Cosmos. But, of course, that is not sustainable forever; and even if one does keep it up, one only has to venture abroad to be put in one's place as one of the Krauts.
Kraftwerk's work, at least from Autobahn (their own Stunde Null) onwards, attempts to answer the question of what is to be done with the past. For all its futurism, it is deeply nostalgic, albeit for the forward-looking pulse of modernism, the future that never was; in part for the Bauhaus-era modernism that was so brutally cut off (as evident in the video for Trans-Europa Express, with its 1930-vintage turbine train model zooming past Metropolis-style buildings), though partly also for the 1950s Wirtschaftswunder years of their own childhoods. What is to be done with the terrible years in between? Well, as much as in one sense, Kraftwerk strive to close the gap, their works are peppered with references which German audiences can pick up, alluding to the unspoken time before Stunde Null: the radio on the cover of Radioactivity, for example, resembles those distributed by the Nazi authorities to households, and indeed, the Autobahn system itself was bound up with the Third Reich (who did not initiate the programme though greatly extended it). As for audiences abroad, rather than seeking to escape German stereotypes, Kraftwerk took them and played, mischievously, to them; becoming the stiff, deadpan robot-men, and throwing in the occasional ambiguous turn of phrase like “total music” or the “mother language”, as if to see if they can jar the foreigners into Mentioning The War again. But Kraftwerk have, discreetly, the last laugh.
Kraftwerk's significance in popular music is hard to overestimate; on their shoulders stand not only electronic pop music (from the early synthpop bands of the late 70s to today's commercial hits), house, techno and dance music, but also much of hip-hop, via Afrika Bambaataa. As Heinrich Diesl quoted, “Before Kraftwerk, German pop music was perceived as Schlager; afterward, it was perceived as Techno”. And, because of their position at the intersection of various historical currents, there is enough to discuss about them to fill an academic conference. Speaking of which, the organiser, Dr. Uwe Schütte, says that, if all goes well, there should be an academic conference about Krautrock at Aston University in a year or two.
Arika Okrent, author of In The Land Of Invented Languages, has a survey of neologisms of the year from various countries:
In the Netherlands, the Van Dale dictionary group chose dagobertducktaks, “Scrooge McDuck tax,” a tax on the super rich. The “youth language” category choice was aanmodderfakker (someone with no ambition in life, from a blend of aanmodderen, “muddle,” and motherf***er).
Médicalmant, a word for a medicine taken to in order to calm down (a blend of médicament, “drug,” and calmant, “soothing”) was selected word of the year at the annual XYZ Festival of New Words in Le Havre
The Fundéu BBVA, a Madrid organization tasked with the protection of the purity of the Spanish language, made selfi, without the English e, the word of the year. Previous suggestions such as autofoto and autorretrato (self-portrait) had failed to catch on, so the spelling change to selfi seemed the next best option. Other candidates were amigovio (blend of amigo, “friend,” and novio, “boyfriend/girlfriend,” for “friends with benefits”) and impago (successfully replacing “default” in discussion of the economy).Elsewhere in the list, a few themes recur: the younger generation's attachment to their mobile phones gives rise to the German neologism Generation Kopf unten (“generation head down”); members of this generation may be at risk of what the Norwegians call mobilnakke, mobile neck. Meanwhile, the Swedish Language Council's list of words included fotobomba (to intrude into someone else's selfi) and klickfiske (“click-fishing”, i.e., what viral content sites engage in). On the other side of the Öresund Bridge, political issues such as hverdagssexisme (“everyday sexism”) and madspild (“food waste”) were the order of the day, while Portugal tackled the social implications of technology, from gamificação (gamification), to cibervadiagem (“cyberslacking”). And apparently in Finland, the word of 2014 was Putin-juusto (“Putin-cheese”), referring to Finnish cheese intended for the Russian market, knocked back because of import bans and sold at a steep discount all over Finland, with Cyrillic lettering still on the packaging.
English, meanwhile, had fairly mundane ones; the OED chose “vape” (relating to electronic nicotine inhalers), while Merriam-Webster's choice of “culture”, seemingly mundane, reflected the mainstreaming of anthropological thinking about collective human behaviour (in the sense of “company culture” or “rape culture”). And Australia had “shirtfront”, a testament to the virility of its elected leader.
A massive rally in the defence of free speech and in solidarity against Islamist terrorism has taken place in Paris, with the crowds estimated between 1.5 and 2 million in number, more than turned out when Paris was liberated from the Nazis. The rally has also attracted leaders from around the world, including various dictators, autocrats and authoritarians, uniting in Paris to say Je Suis Charlie, before going back to supervise their torturers giving some recalcitrant journalists a going over, or just to rush in sweeping mass-surveillance powers (which are unlikely to have helped catch terrorists the intelligence services already had on their watch lists).
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world:
- In Nigeria, the Islamist group Boko Haram (whose name, meaning something like “non-Islamic education is forbidden”, says it all) have reportedly massacred some 2,000 people, all in the name of an all-merciful God, after seizing a town. (That's about 200 times the Charlie Hebdo massacre, or 2/3 of 9/11.)
- Saudi Arabia, that most honorary of members in our world-spanning alliance of freedom-loving democracies, has flogged a man 50 times for running a liberal blog and criticising the country's religious establishment (“insulting Islam”). Raif Badawi was hunted down by Saudi Arabia's morality police, undoubtedly using surveillance technologies sold by our governments to aid in the hunting down of terrorists; incidentally, Saudi law regards atheism and apostasy as forms of terrorism. Badawi is to be flogged 950 more times over the next 20 weeks, after which he will continue his 10-year prison sentence.
Raif Badawi is probably Charlie, but Saudi Arabia's ambassador to France, who was at the Je Suis Charlie rally, not so much.
Finally, it appears that the noble French tradition of freedom of offensive speech only applies to offensive speech punching outwards.
The jihadist terrorist raid on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the murder of ten of its staff (including the editor and several renowned cartoonists and columnists), and the subsequent manhunt and police raids have been all over the news for the past few days; the horror that this could happen in the middle of Paris, in a satirical magazine already under police protection, was palpable. I'm not going to recap the details of the events; one can find comprehensive accounts in the press. This post is more about the reaction. (On the events of the day, suffice it to say that my condolences are with the families and loved ones of those who were murdered, and I condemn the criminals who perpetrated these acts; also, the best way to defeat terrorism is to refuse to be terrorised.)
The aftermath of the attacks drew a unified display of solidarity; all over the world—at Paris's Place de la République, at Trafalgar Square, in Martin Place in Sydney (the site of a recent siege by a clown with pretensions of being a jihadist terrorist), and elsewhere, people gathered with candles and signs. (There were some notable exceptions; the authorities in Tehran—totalitarian Islamists, albeit of a form deeply hostile to the Sunni jihadists involved in the attacks—clamped down on protests, presumably afraid that they might turn into an Iranian Spring.) One sign which soon emerged read Je Suis Charlie, a statement of solidarity with the victims. Soon, this sign had spread around the world; banners with it, in Charlie Hebdo's distinct headline typeface, in white on black, made it to T-shirts, banners on official buildings, the pages of newspapers of all stripes, and even Apple's French homepage.
One can understand the sentiment—you have attacked all of us, it says, but we will prevail, and you will not win—though those expressing it might not want to see it tested to its logical conclusion. Charlie Hebdo was not a cuddly, friendly or broadly loved publication; it was satire at its most scabrous, a tourettic court jester speaking truth to power and then dropping his pants and farting in its general direction. Its cartoonists and writers lampooned all targets without fear or favour, often calibrating their attacks to be deliberately, bluntly offensive; the offence, in their case, was part of the message, namely an assertion of the freedom of the secular, democratic Republic. The upshot of this is that a lot of the institutions now claiming to be Charlie look somewhat absurd; newspapers publishing Je Suis Charlie signs but carefully avoiding reprinting the offending cartoons, for example, are not particularly Charlie. Government buildings bearing banners identifying them with a viciously irreverent satirical publication look somewhat ridiculous. As for Apple's claim, one only has to look at its Disneyesque curation of the App Store to answer that question. Had Charlie Hebdo submitted an app containing the sorts of content that is their stock in trade, would Apple have ever approved it? Apple is not Charlie.
But death ennobles; tragic, spectacular death, even more so. In 1997, another death in Paris transformed a ditzy socialite into a saintly, virtuous figure, forever beyond mortal reproach; and now, the same phenomenon threatens to ossify Charlie Hebdo in a similar pristine marble. Though while its editor and cartoonists may be dead, Charlie Hebdo is not dead; the surviving staff have committed to producing an edition next week; money from a variety of sources (among them, Google and the Guardian) will help push the print run, normally around 60,000, to a million. The problem is, what comes after that: neither having been ennobled nor being universally loved is particularly healthy for a satirical publication (readers of a certain age might recall the genteel dotage of the English satirical magazine Punch as an example of this).
I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmedAhmed is Ahmed Merabet, the French police officer who was murdered by the jihadists.
Once again, the year is almost over, so it's time to look back on the music of the past year; and so, here are the records of 2014 (in alphabetical order):
- Ben Frost, A U R O R A
Frost's most recent album sees him put aside the processed electroacoustic sounds he has used on previous records and instead start experimenting with electronic/dance-music instrumentation (as alluded to in one of the track titles, Diphenyl Oxalate, after the chemical used in glow sticks); though, by the time they've been put through his production process (whose details are a closely-held secret), the sounds are almost unrecognisable, Frost also collaborates with two drummers, who play in tandem. The result is layers of vaguely distressed textures; slow build-ups, often of corroded timbres, and intricate soundscapes, punctuated by bursts of searing, cathartic noise; contrasts between vast spaces and overwhelming intensity. Highlights include Venter and the closing triptych of No Sorrowing/Sola Fide/A Single Point Of Blinding Light. Sublime, in the Burkean sense of the word.
- East India Youth, Total Strife Forever
William Doyle, aka East India Youth, juggles the hats of songwriter, minimalist composer and producer of bangin' choons; as such, Total Strife Forever could be summed up, somewhat reductionistically, as two parts Hot Chip to one part Philip Glass. The opening track, Glitter Recession, seems to have begun its life as a piano piece in the Glassian vein, before being given a doing-over in Ableton Live; the result is an atmospheric buildup, easing into a more typically dance-music second track, albeit with an unusual 5-bar loop. Track three, Dripping Down takes it into more mainstream club-ballad territory, combining beats and basslines, a chorus of “soulful” gospel-via-Radiohead backing vocals, and lyrics with asomewhat introspective and soul-searching theme (as befits the inner-space exploration that so often happens when electronica meets songcraft). This segues into Hinterland (a rather good bleepy techno banger that transports you to a sweatily euphoric basement rave in Hackney), possibly the highlight of the album, before Heaven, How Long, (a techno-ballad of chemical alienation morphing, in its chorus, into a club floor filler), and Looking For Someone (which sounds like a spiritual for millennials). Doyle's more avant-garde tendencies reëmerge in tracks like Midnight Koto and Song For A Granular Piano, as well as the four-part title track interleaved throughout the record.
- Fatima Al Qadiri, Asiatisch
A relentlessly postmodern, multilayered cross-cultural mashup like something out of a William Gibson novel; a Kuwaiti-raised, Brooklyn-based producer's concept album about the futuristic Far East, titled in German for some reason, and executed in a dubstep/grime idiom. Asiatisch starts off with the appositely-titled Shanzhai, a knockoff of Sinead O'Connor's cover of Nothing Compares To U, performed on synthesized choir pads, with the vocals replaced with nonsensical lyrics in Mandarin. The interlude Loading Beijing ramps the cyberpunk up to 11, as affectless machinelike voiceovers seemingly announce the initialisation of the virtual reality that is Al-Qadiri's gritty, high-tech new Orient. Other tracks, with titles like Forbidden City, Dragon Tattoo (its very title a semiotic layer-cake, juxtaposing Orientalism and cyberpunk via a recent Swedish crime thriller; the song itself sounds like M.I.A. reinventing Warm Leatherette) and Shanghai Freeway, combine oriental (and occasionally Middle Eastern) scales, synthesized shakuhachis and subbass drones to create an impressionistic sound-painting of something sprawling, neon-lit and aggressively futuristic.
- I Break Horses, Chiaroscuro
The Stockholm electropop duo's second album is a decidedly darker affair than its predecessor, seemingly having picked up DNA along the way from witch-house, coldwave and/or the recent wave of neo-goth synthpop like Former Ghosts and Cold Cave, and having an brooding, elegiac majesty to show for it. The opener “You Burn”, with its heartbeat rhythm, slow minor-key piano chords and measured vocals, sets an ominous mood; this is followed up eight tracks, alternating icy detachment and urgency over layers of coruscating synth arpeggios, bass drones, pulsing sequencers, gothic/industrial drum machine patterns and cathedraline reverb, with titles like “Faith”, “Denial” and “Disclosure”; the album is bookended with “Heart To Know”, knowingly weary vocals over a stripped-back piece of dusty, distorted ambience somewhat redolent of Polygon Window (i.e., Aphex Twin)'s Quino-Phec.
- Makthaverskan, Makthaverskan II
Technically a 2013 release, but it was released outside of Sweden this year, so it scrapes in, and if anything qualifies, this does. Among some of the better C86-almost-meets-shoegaze indiepop of recent times, sounding in places somewhere between The Sundays and The Cure's poppier mid-80s moments, with tight bass lines, choppy processed guitars and punchy, reverb-drenched female vocals; a highlight is No Mercy, which burns with righteous energy.
- Oh Peas!, Shades Of Intolerance (BandCamp)
Welsh multi-instrumentalist Rosie Smith, who is also one half of post-punk duo Totem Terrors, makes an impressive solo début with a collection of varyingly askew yet technically meticulous bedroom-pop songs, a few spoken-word pieces and the odd instrumental, layered from a variety of instruments (guitars, keyboards, melodicas and such) and lyrics alternating between pop idioms, quotidian observations, and the odd touch of wry surrealism and clever wordplay (example: “take a book of poetry to your best friend's birthday party, read them every poem about love, hate, war or death”, “you're so much sexier since I found out that you had dyslexia”). Highlights include the opening track Thick Like Snow, the Casio VL1-and-skronk punk-pop of Peanuts And Pickled Onions (which almost reinvents the key concepts of Ninetynine's Wöekenender from first principles), and the closing track Warm World, which is sweetly romantic and yet not cloying, not unlike early Mirah. This record manages to be at once uncontrivedly sincere and technically accomplished. Look for Oh Peas! to go places.
- Penny Orchids, Worse Things
London's Penny Orchids theatrically straddle the spaces between the scabrous end of rock'n'roll and older, though not necessarily more salubrious, traditions such as sea shanties and outlaw balladry; one could compare them to the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave, though the artists they remind me of the most are two antipodean bands, The Paradise Motel and Mikelangelo And The Black Sea Gentlemen. It starts off in fine form with One More Drink, a nautical murder ballad of sorts, and then goes on from there. About half of the album is themed, being the story of an Irish immigrant named Maloney who falls in with old New York's Jewish mafia; it's set sometime between the late 19th century and the Prohibition era, and adopts a klezmer idiom, which the band manage to pull off respectably (indeed, if one were to coin a genre name for this album, it would be “klezmerbilly”). The album closes with Shell Beach, a wistful piano ballad sung by the Penny Orchids keyboardist Kate Dornan, whose voice sounds a little bit like Sarah Blackwood of Dubstar. Dornan has been doing more singing in new, yet-to-be-recorded songs, which can only be a good thing.
- The Royal Landscaping Society, s/t (BandCamp)
Another new band from Spain's increasingly vibrant indiepop scene, The Royal Landscaping Society wear their Sarah Records influences on their sleeves, and combine that with more electronics. This year, they played at Indietracks and released their eponymous début EP, on French online label Beko. The opening track, Goodbye, starts off a little like The Field Mice's Five Moments; the Sarah comparisons continue in the third track, La La La, which doesn't sound too far from The Orchids or similar bands; other tracks (such as Frost) lean more on the synthesizers and drum machines, though often adding a guitar, not unlike bands like Kuryakin. The EP proper ends on a mellow note with Early Sunrays, all guitar arpeggios and synth strings, but this is followed by three remixes, from other Spanish indie artists. As this sort of classic indiepop goes, there are few better examples from 2014.
- Todd Terje, It's Album Time with Todd Terje
They like to have fun with their house/disco/electro/whatever up in Norway, and Terje Olsen, aka Todd Terje (his pseudonym itself a tongue-in-cheek reference to Chicago house DJ Todd Terry), is no exception. The album comes with playfully colourful, retro-styled cover artwork, and starts with a short theme tune, followed up by two tracks (Leisure Suit Preben and Preben Goes To Acapulco), which sound like TV-show themes and surf the fine line between cool and cheesy. The pace steps up into an unselfconscious 80s-flavoured retro-disco with Strandbar (which means “beachable”, I think) and Delorean Dynamite, before suddenly dropping the pace with a cover of Robert Palmer's anthem of middle-aged coupled ennui, Johnny and Mary; it's glazed over in soft, glossy layers of mid-to-late-80s overproduction (listen to those delayed drum-machine handclaps!), and sung by a weary-sounding Bryan Ferry, who could be the sharp-suited, melancholy drunk riveted to his barstool at the end of the night, his tie loosened and a cigarette burning to a stub in his fingers. The highlight, in my opinion, is the bipartite Swing Star (whose first part, all ambient synth arpeggios and drones, manages to sounds uncannily redolent of the Reload (The 147 Take) remix of Slowdive's In Mind, and whose second part reprises this with beats); finally, the album ends on a high with the bouncy disco anthem Inspector Norse.
- Jane Weaver, The Silver Globe
Jane Weaver was hitherto known mostly as a “folk” singer in a Wicker Man-esque vein; her new album is a surprise in its maximalist intensity; a densely cosmic, psychedelic affair, stacked with propulsive grooves, analogue synthesizers and lush textures, and not too far from Broadcast or Stereolab. The opening (and title) track is 47 seconds of ambience, all analogue synths and tape delays, easing into the metronomic kosmische grüv of Argent; a Krautrock juggernaut which motors along on a wave of pulsing bass, filter sweeps and choppy guitars. Weaver's ethereal soprano floats over this, weaving a tale of technological enchantment, and setting the mood and the theme for the rest of the album. Next up is The Electric Mountain, a prog-rock ballad built up over a Hawkwind sample and analogue synth riff, its story-telling vocals sounding somewhat like a more sci-fi-influenced Wendy Rule. Arrows (apparently based on a meditation on the cycle between the feathers from killed birds and the arrows used to hunt them) is a lovely, languidly ethereal piece, Weaver's vocals, singing a repetitive mantra, melting into a clunking bass guitar, wash of reverb over string machine and home-organ drums, before segueing into the Casiotone-driven disco stomp of Don't Take My Soul, with its circus-style melody and country-style falsetto, which would probably be the obvious radio hit. Cells has a dreamy languor about it, sounding not unlike Saint Etienne as heard from another room whilst still waking up; the tempo goes back up with the cosmic disco of Misson Desire, which one could imagine as the theme song from an obscure, infinitely cooler Barbarella-analogue filmed in, say, Yugoslavia or somewhere during the early 1970s. (There are undoubtedly layers of reference and allusion throughout this work; Weaver's husband and partner in music is the arch-obscurantist curator Andy Votel, after all.) The album eases to closure, with a few more mellow, though no less intricate, tracks, before bidding adieu with Your Time In This Life Is Just Temporary, its reverbed barroom piano courtesy of BC Camplight. In any case, this is a record which reveals more with each repeated listening.
The album of the year is, of course, Taylor Swift's 1989, but were it not, it'd be Jane Weaver's The Silver Globe.
As far as the gigs of the year go, the highlight would be a tie between the Slowdive gigs I saw; they were all great, but I'd say either the very first one at Hoxton Bar (for the “I'm watching Slowdive play live!!” factor), the one at Primavera, for its epic scale and energy, or the very last one at the Forum (by when they had had half a year of live gigs under their belt and some appropriately psychedelic visual projections to boot); they were all magnificent. I'll just say that watching them play what their cover of Syd Barrett's Golden Hair has grown into—a sonic cathedral of coruscating majesty—is the musical equivalent of watching the most breathtaking sunset one has ever seen, until its very last rays disappear below the horizon into the velvet night.
This, of course, is a very hard act to follow, but the very strong runner-up was seeing
For your listening pleasure and/or curiosity, there is a streamable mix taken from the records mentioned above here.
If you're finding your Christmas stressful or unpleasant, keep in mind that it could be worse; you could, for example, have been at one of Margaret Thatcher's Prime Ministerial Christmas parties, which were, if her friend and advisor Lord Bell's memoir is anything to go by, reputedly uniquely joyless affairs, more like an ordeal to be endured to prove one's loyalty than anything meant to be enjoyed:
“There were absolutely no presents — presents were not part of Christmas as far as Margaret was concerned. No Christmas jumpers. No open-necked shirts. No charades. No games. And no children — apart from the year we had our three-month-old baby Daisy and she was too small to leave at home, so I had to get special permission to take her with us.”
The day was centred around the Queen’s speech at 2.45, when complete silence was required. “You couldn’t speak, you couldn’t cough,” writes Bell. “You couldn’t move. You had to get yourself into a reasonably comfortable position because if you shifted once it had started she’d give you a killer death stare.After everyone had stood to attention through the Queen's speech, the Iron Lady's renowned sense of compassion would usually emerge:
“She would never actually criticise the Queen, but she would usually make a sarcastic comment at the end — 'Oh dear, she’s going to feel sorry for the poor again.'”
Youth subcultures, as many middle-aged former teenagers have lamented, aren't what they used to be. In the old days, you see, you had to make your choices (or have them made for you by which class you had been born into and, in the light of this, what would get you camaraderie and what would get you beaten up), and stick with them. You were either a Mod or a Rocker, or a Punk or a Grebo or something, and you would live (and, in some cases, die) by that; you wore the uniform, listened to the music, and had little tolerance for other subcultures; if you fancied the other side's soundtrack or sartorial style, you would keep it to yourself, or else. But kids these days (kids these days...!) treat subculture as if it were a supermarket, or perhaps Noel Fielding's dressing-up chest; the entire back-catalogue of young cool is there for the taking and the mashing up, with elements going in and out of style by the season, to be worn as accessories. Beyond the dress-up element, the default becomes a globalised homogenate, a sort of international Brooklyn/Berlin/Harajuku of skinny jeans/
folkbeards/vividly coloured sunglasses/patterned fabrics worn by the international Hipster, and, more intensely and urgently, by their adolescent precursor, the Scene Kid. Subcultural music, meanwhile, is a post-ironic soup of the last few decades of influences, refracted through the prisms of trend blogs (drum machines, hazy synths, skronky/choppy guitars, That Krautrock Drum Beat, and so on). Parties are inevitably called “raves”, whether or not they bear any similarity to MDMA-fuelled bacchanales around the M25 circa 1987. Increasingly, the content of the subculture becomes interchangeable, and the process of performing a subculture becomes the subculture; almost like a masked ball, or a postmodern reënactment society for the youth tribes of the 20th century.
But once one goes beyond the idea of a subculture as being based around fashion or music, things sometimes start to get much more unusual. One case in point is the Tulpamancy subculture; which, could be summed up in three words as “extreme imaginary friends”. Tulpamancers essentially invent imaginary friends and believe in them really hard, to the point of voluntarily inducing dissociative personalities in themselves, hiving off one part of their minds to be another, autonomous, personality, with whom they can interact.
The term tulpa is a Tibetan word meaning a sentient being created from pure thought; the practice crossed over from Tibetan mysticism into the Western occult/esoteric fringe in the early 20th century (the explorer Alexandra David-Neel was one pioneer), but the modern version owes more to internet “geek” subcultures; it started amongst Bronies (dudes who are really into My Little Pony, which may be either a repudiation of gender dichotomies or the ontological equivalent of a frat-bro panty raid on the idea of “girl”, or both or neither), before spreading to other branches of “geek” culture/fandom.
Tulpas remained the preserve of occultists until 2009, when the subject appeared on the discussion boards of 4chan. A few anonymous members started to experiment with creating tulpas. Things snowballed in 2012 when adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – known as “bronies” to anyone who's been near a computer for the past three years – caught on. They created a new forum on Reddit and crafted tulpas based on their favourite characters from the show.
In the cross-pollinating fields of the internet, it wasn’t long before tulpamancy also started to attract manga and fantasy fans. “My tulpa is called Jasmine,” says Ele. “She’s a human but from an alternative reality where she can do magic. I created her a dozen years ago for a fantasy series I write and then made her into a tulpa.”Being a fandom subculture, there are, of course, plenty of drawings (of varying levels of execution) depicting tulpas; one probably would not be too surprised to find that many look either like anime bishonen with fox ears/snouts and/or variants on Hot Topic Darkling. Because, of course, that's what one's magical alter-ego looks like in fandom.
As for the creation of, and interaction with, these tulpas, an entire methodology has evolved for bringing them into being, and interacting with them. Tulpamancers don't so much consciously think up their spirit critters, but rather mentally create a wonderland, imagine themselves in it, and let them come up from their subconscious and meet them. From then on, they practice imagining them, allowing them to become clearer, and ultimately being able to hallucinate them in everyday reality, which is where the fun starts:
While voice is the most common way tulpas communicate with their hosts, tulpamancers can learn to stroke their tulpa’s fur, feel their breath on their neck and even experience sexual contact.
Tulpas soon get curious about their host’s body; some want to experience life as a “meatperson”. Indulgent hosts then use a practice called “switching”, which allows their tulpa to possess their body while they watch from the ringside of consciousness.This, of course, sounds a lot like disassociative personality disorder, something not generally seen as desirable. Some tulpamancers, though, have turned that claim on its head; rather than dissociation being a disorder, or a symptom of one, what if it could be a way of self-medicating or coping What if, in other words, the optimal number of personalities in one body is, in some circumstance, greater than 1?
Koomer’s case is rare, and for Veissière “schizophrenia [could be understood as]… an incapacitating example of ‘involuntary Tulpas’", therefore, by forming positive relationships with their symptoms, sufferers can start to recover. It's an idea shared by the “Hearing Voices Movement”, who challenge the medical models of schizophrenia and suggest that pathologisation aggravates symptoms. “My schizophrenia manifested itself by having many thoughts and ideas all conflicting and shouting at me,” says Logan, who wanted his last name withheld. “Turning them into tulpas gave those thoughts a face and allowed them to be sorted out in a way that made sense.”
Yesterday, Australia awoke to the news of what appeared to be a terrorist siege in the heart of Sydney. ISIS terrorists had, it seemed, seized the Lindt Café, a retail outlet of the Swiss confectioner and popular tourist destination, and were holding a few dozen terrified hostages, some of them forced to hold up a black flag with Arabic writing in the window. International terror had struck home, and the Lucky Country's innocence was shattered forever, the hard dawn of the Long Siege breaking with the pitiless intensity of the Arabian desert sun. Rumours abounded: of sweeping police raids across Lakemba, a desperate hunt for the unspoken nightmare scenario this could be merely a distraction for, the diabolical plans of an invisible enemy who is everywhere, his dagger at our throats like Hassan ibn Sabbah's fabled Assassins. Awful videos of beheadings, lit by familiar Australian sunlight, were sure to follow.
But then the fog cleared and it turned out to be somewhat less than that. Far from an organised, tightly disciplined cell of fanatical death cultists, it turned out to be a lone individual with a gun and possibly an (actual or fake) bomb. The fearsome ISIS flag, that latterday skull and crossbones breathlessly reported by the Murdoch tabloids, turned out to be just a piece of black cloth with the fundamental tenet of Islam, the statement “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet”, written on it, much as it is on the Saudi Arabian flag; superficially scarily terroristic-looking, though on deeper inspection, more like lazy set decoration than anything else. The siege dragged on through the day and well into the night; neither the gunman nor his accomplices managing to get their message into the media, partly because he didn't actually have any accomplices. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, the police stormed the building; at the end, three people were dead; two hostages and the gunman.
Details soon emerged of the gunman; it turned out that he had been a somewhat odd character, to say the least. An Iranian refugee who had sought asylum in 1996 from the country's Islamist dictatorship, who had imprisoned his family. At various times, he had styled himself as an Islamic cleric, peace activist and spiritual healer. It is in the course of the last vocation that he seems to have incurred several dozen charges of sexual and indecent assault. Whilst doing this, he was apparently also writing harrassing letters to the relatives of Australian troops killed in Afghanistan. Furthermore, last year, he had been charged as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. As he awaited trial for this, he maintained his calling as an Islamic cleric, despite finding little support in the actual Islamic community, and seemingly came to the conclusion that the community was wrong, corrupted by the “new religion” of moderate Islam. His one-man ministry became increasingly radical; a week before his last stand, he posted to his website, pledging his allegiance to ISIS, the aforementioned mob of bloodthirsty attention-seekers in Syria. It is not clear whether anybody in this group acknowledged his pledge.
There's a lot in that profile, and it's not flattering; it's like he's one part Martin Bryant (the mass murderer from Hobart) to one part Fred Phelps (also a self-proclaimed religious leader whose currency was hate); a deeply unpleasant troll and attention-seeking psychopath who escalated into possible murder. (It is not clear whether he killed either his ex-wife or any of the hostages, though it doesn't look good in either case.) Of course, a key difference between him and Bryant, Phelps, and indeed, any of the high school shooters of the past few decades, is that he was not “white”.
Much has been said about white privilege recently, especially in the wake of the killings of black youths in the US whose only crime was that it could not be exhaustively proven that they weren't about to pull a gun. White privilege, it seems, can involve being able to behave normally, rather than erring on the side of proving one's unthreateningness, or avoiding situations where a jury might rule that Whitey could have reasonably considered one to have been a clear and present danger. And now, it seems, it can also involve being judged on one's individual circumstances, rather than as an exemplar of a homogeneous, pathological Other, should one flip out and kill some people.
One can imagine how this would have been reported had someone from a white, Anglo-Celtic background been the perpetrator: a bingo-card of adverse circumstances (“broken home”, “failed marriage“, perhaps substance abuse and several possible types of mental illness); in and out of trouble with the law, the antihero turns to religion in an attempt to get his shit together, going from church to megachurch, but finding them all to be shallow phonies and leaving them behind, treading his own lonely, uncompromising, and increasingly narrow path. Then, one day, he snaps, and—surprise, surprise—nobody blames Hillsong.
The hostage taker was clearly an unstable individual. He was also an unstable individual from an Islamic cultural background, and his pathology was coloured by Islam, by the currents of extremism on the fringe of Islam and the perception of the Islamic Jihadist as the bête noire of our age. However, it looks like that was all he was; there seems to be no evidence of him having been part of a larger terrorist conspiracy, or even having had much of a plan. Some are referring to him as “self-radicalised”, which is another word only used for the scary Other; one is less likely to see this word attached to, say, the failed pick-up artist in California who decided to shoot some women to avenge having been repeatedly rejected, despite the fact that, in both cases, we are witnessing a similar phenomenon: toxic resentment buttressed by ideology. It's just that, in one case, the ideology is not from here.
Fortunately, with the exception of Murdoch's Daily Telegraph screaming terrorism, Australia has mostly kept its head on. Mindful of the posibility of a Cronulla-style backlash against conspicuously Muslim-looking bystanders, offered their solidarity on Twitter, with the #illridewithyou hashtag soon trending worldwide. Meanwhile, civic leaders have rejected the Murdochs' claim that everything had changed forever, framing the siege as an isolated incident. One does wonder how long this will hold; whether this will be used as justification to pass a new tranche of sweeping police powers or restrictions on civil liberties. (The government's planned mandatory data retention regime is coming up for debate soon, and could be rubber-stamped through parliament, even though it would have had no effect on this case, with the perpetrator having been very well known to police.)