Sunday, November 27, 2016

It's Thanksgiving Time Again

Well, another year, another Thanksgiving.  As per usual, it was a quiet family meal with all our favorite traditional dishes—such as deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, buttered rolls, and stuffing—and some new touches, such as watermelon (added at the request of our middle child), and I suppose there was some turkey in there somewhere as well.  And we all came up with some things to be thankful for.  One of the things I was thankful for (yes, yes: after my lovely family and my lovely job) was the return of MST3K.

If you don’t know what Mystery Science Theater 3000 is, then you must immediately to go Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, or whatever your streaming engine of choice might be, and begin watching.  If you vaguely remember MST3K as “that thing where silhouettes of robots make smartass comments at the screen,” use the tips in the preceding sentence to refresh your memory, because you obviously didn’t fully appreciate the genius of this show at the time.  If you remember the show fondly, as most of us do, then I’m almost certainly not telling you anything you don’t already know.  The return of MST3K (probably early next year), roughly 17½ years after its last new episode aired, is a bizarre little story in its own right, and perhaps worthy of a longer post someday (not that I have any inside information; just a long-time fan’s perspective).  But today I’m just noting that I’m thankful to see it come back, with new talent as well as old, and I’ve got a lot of positive anticipation and excitement for seeing the new episodes.

And, on top of all that, we’ve now had a return of the Turkey Day marathons for the second year in a row, so we got to sit around and watch old episodes of MST3K before sitting down to eat.  So that was pretty cool.

Anyhow, I hope all my faithful reader(s) had a lovely Thanksgiving meal, if they were so inclined to do so and geographically poised to take advantage of said holiday.  Next week, if all goes as planned, we’ll start looking ahead to the next big holiday, which is already started to loom large in our household.  Here’s an idea of what’s going on at our house these days:

Smaller Animal: Alexa, how many days until Christmas?
Alexa: There are 28 more days until Christmas Day.

Only 27 more of those to go.  Sigh.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Shadowfall Equinox III

"Five Fathoms Below You"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

Although hardly any of my mixes are exclusive to a particular musical style, some of them are pretty close.  Shadowfall Equinox, for instance, focuses pretty strongly on ambient.  Oh, sure, there are touches of new age, world, and a healthy dose of darkwave, but the majority of the tracks are firmly in the camp of ambient.

But just what is ambient?  I recently stumbled on a pretty decent blog post exploring that exact topic, and, although the podcast the author references is no longer with us,1 the discussion is still very much relevant.  In particular, he throws out some of what Brian Eno said about the subgenre, which he is generally credited with creating.  The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that Eno was inspired (or disgusted) by some Muzak he heard playing in an airpport.  Instead of taking “regular” music and watering it down, he reasoned, why not design music especially for being in the background of other activities?  This led to his landmark album Music for Airports, which many consider to be the first ambient album (or at least the first to be called “ambient”).  As the liner notes for that album proclaimed: “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

He expanded on these thoughts, being careful to distinguish ambient from Muzak:

The concept of music designed specifically as a background feature in the environment was pioneered by Muzak Inc. in the fifties, and has since come to be known generically by the term Muzak.  The connotations that this term carries are those particularly associated with the kind of material that Muzak Inc. produces—familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner.  Understandably, this has led most discerning listeners (and most composers) to dismiss entirely the concept of environmental music....  Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these.  Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities.  And whereas their intention is to “brighten” the environment by adding stimulus to it ... Ambient Music is intended to produce calm and a space to think.2

A space to think ... that is exactly what I use Shadowfall Equinox for.  And of course Eno says it better than I did (in my opening post for this mix), but allow me the indulgence of quoting myself here:

It’s the perfect mood music for contemplative thought, for creative endeavor, for living in the background while you go on living, not dragging you down but not lifting you up either; it doesn’t fade into the wallpaper, but rather makes you think; it doesn’t engage your brain actively, but somehow sneaks in under the radar, making your subconscious race and your dreaming self wake up and take notice.

I find Shadowfall Equinox quite stimulating, mentally.  And it mostly stems from my discovery of Hearts of Space (and particularly “Shadowfall II”).  From that particular HoS program we have, of course, another tune from Jeff Greinke, and another from Kevin Keller, but we open this volume with the same opener used for a different HoS program, “Tango Zero Hour”: “Milonga del Angel” by Astor Piazzolla.  Piazzolla was often considered to be the top tango composer and performer in the world: you’ve no doubt heard his music on the soundtrack for 12 Monkeys, and how many other tango artists have an airport named after them?  A “milonga” is a type of tango (or, more properly, the musical precursor to the tango), so one might translate “Milonga del Angel” as “tango of the angel.”  And it’s quite a heavenly tune, one which establishes the mood immediately and strongly.

For a bit of Native American flavor, I’ve paired Robbie Robertson’s “Coyote Dance” with “Passage Two” from Kiva.  We last heard from Robertson on Porchwell Firetime; although I really hate his most prominent music,3 I’ve had much better luck with his solo efforts; this one is from his 1994 soundtrack Music for the Native Americans with the Red Road Ensemble, which included several members of his family.4  Kiva is a collaboration among Steve Roach—possibly the biggest name in ambient after Eno himself—and Michael Stearns (another well-known name in the ambient game) and Native American new age/ambient artist Ron Sunsinger.5  Kiva is the best example I’ve personally heard of ambient music with a Native American flair, although we may yet hear from another Stearns/Sunsinger collaboration, Sorcerer, on a future volume.

Surprisingly, we’ve no Falling You this time around, but our darkwave component is still represented admirably by darkwave godfather Sam Rosenthal in his usual guise of Black Tape for a Blue Girl, this time with the title track off his more recent Halo Star, with vocals provided by Bret Helm from goth-rockers Audra.6  Typically songs on Shadowfall Equinox don’t have words, but I tend to cut the darkwave tunes some slack.  Titles for the past two volumes were both provided by Falling You, as it happens, and “Halo Star” was in the running for doing so here, but it was narrowly beaten out by our other vocal track, “Five Seconds to Hold You” by Devics.  Devics, who we first heard from on Darkling Embrace but whom I spoke about at greatest length over on Smokelit Flashback IV, where I described them as dream pop crossed with darkwave, which is not a bad description.  “Five Seconds” has a slow, ponderous, nearly underwater feel that’s perfect for this contemplative mix, and it also provides our volume title.

Not quite darkwave but not not darkwave either, I introduced you to Nox Arcana in our last music mix installment, Phantasma Chorale, where I called them “gaming music,” which is appropos but insufficient.  Here I’ve chosen two tracks of theirs—one off Legion of Shadows and one off Grimm Tales.  The first provides our “almost-but-not-quite creepy” factor, and the second has a bit of a Renaissance-faire feel that flows nicely after Stellamara’s Balkan-infused selection, “Immrama.”  As a bonus, “The Forgotten Path” makes a nice closer, and “Immrama” gives us a Magnatune representative to replace Falling You (and Lisa DeBenedictis from back on volume I).  And, speaking of worldmusic, Logical Drift gives us a bit of world-inflected ambient with “Judean Desert.”  Logical Drift is a side project of producer John Matarazzo which I discovered via my satellite provider’s “Zen” music channel.7  So the closing triplet here on volume III is the nice 1-2-3 worldmusic punch of “Judean Desert,” “Immrama,” and “The Forgotten Path,” which all flow nicely into each other.

Shadowfall Equinox III
    [Five Fathoms Below You]

        “Milonga del Angel” by Astor Piazzolla, off Tango: Zero Hour
        “Morpheus” by Delerium, off Morpheus
        “Coyote Dance” by Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble, off Music for the Native Americans [Soundtrack]
        “Passage Two” by Steve Roach, Michael Stearns & Ron Sunsinger, off Kiva
        “Hidden Realm” by Nox Arcana, off Legion of Shadows
        “Searching” by Kevin Keller, off The Day I Met Myself
        “Coelocanth” by Shriekback, off Oil and Gold
        “Halo Star” by Black Tape for a Blue Girl, off Halo Star
        “Friday Afternoon” by The Hope Blister, off Underarms
        “Five Seconds to Hold You” by Devics, off My Beautiful Sinking Ship
        “Last Wave” by Jeff Greinke, off Wide View
        “The Dogs of Breakfast” by Lawlor, off Mad Alice Lane (A Ghost Story) [EP]
        “Judean Desert” by Logical Drift, off Logical Drift
        “Immrama” by Stellamara, off Star of the Sea
        “The Forgotten Path” by Nox Arcana, off Grimm Tales
Total:  15 tracks,  74:24

The remaining tracks are unexpected in various ways.  “Dogs of Breakfast” is from Lawlor’s impossible-to-find EP Mad Alice Lane (A Ghost Story).  The title track of that disc is obviously what you want, and we will absolutely see it show up on another mix,8 but this “flip side” isn’t so bad itself, and it works well here.  (“Lawlor,” by the way, is in this case Peter Lawlor, most famous for providing music for BBC news and sports shows, including that used in the 2000 Olympics.  He was also a founding member of Stiltskin, but you probably never heard of them.9)

On the other hand, Hope Blister isn’t too surprising, and not but so obscure—especially once you realize that they are an Ivo Watts offshoot of This Mortal Coil, who graced us with a song each on the first two volumes.  Unlike This Mortal Coil’s constantly rotating personnel, Hope Blister was fairly fixed, with Louise Rutkowski (who also sang a few TMC tracks) providing the vocals, and the bass player from Dark Star playing bass.  Layer onto that a fair amount of cello and strings arrangements from Audrey Riley (who has done the same for bands ranging from the Style Council to the Smiths to the Smashing Pumpkins) and the occasional sax from Dif Juz’s amazing Ritchie Thomas,10 and you have a pretty decent continuation of what This Mortal Coil was trying to achieve.  While Hope Blister’s vocal tracks are decent enough, their instrumental tracks, like TMC’s, are ambient and occasionally fascinating.  “Friday Afternoon” is repetitive to the point of minimalism, but I find its synth-wash-over-the-sounds-of-a-rainy-day ambiance quite soothing.

“Coelocanth” by Shriekback is, with “Halo Star,” the centerpiece of the volume, so it has to be pretty strong.  Happily, it is: it has a ringing, echoey, undersea feel that befits its namesake.  If you ever saw the early Michael Mann film Manhunter, you may recognize it.  It’s quite atypical for a Shriekback tune, especially given that it comes from Oil & Gold, which, while not their poppiest album,11 is certainly no Big Night Music either.12  It’s the closer for Oil & Gold, being a winding down after mostly upbeat tracks, but its much more evocative and central on a mix like this one.

Which just leaves us with our second track, “Morpheus” by Delerium.  Delerium is a curious entity; Wikipedia accuses them of being purveyors of “dark ethereal ambient trance,” which is such a tumbled-together profusion of musical styles that it nearly takes my breath away.  Still, I suppose it’s a not-entirely-incorrect description of “Morpheus,” at least, although Delerium’s “style” (if you can even pin them down with such a word) is fairly wide-ranging.  Delerium grows out of industrial greats Front Line Assembly, and later evolves (or devolves, depending on your point of view) into trip-hop aspirants Fauxliage, who you may remember encountering back on Smokelit Flashback IV.  But Delerium is sort of dark, and ambient, and ... yeah, okay, ethereal and trancy, I suppose.  I don’t like all of their music, but every once in a while they hit on something magical, and I think “Morpheus” may be the best of the best.

Next time, we look forward to the approaching holiday season.


1 The only remnant of the podcast I could find was There’s Been a Change, which is pretty interesting to listen to if you’re really into ambient.

2 I rely here on the excerpts from Eno’s liner notes presented in the essay “Brian Eno and the ‘Quiet Club’: Subtle Beauty as Social Critique”, which is, along with the Wikipedia article on ambient, quite an excellent source for diving into more detail on ambient than I have room for here.

3 By which I mean the Band.  While I at least like some examples of nearly every type of music, the one I can’t stand is country, and there are certain artists which just drift too close to that line to be tolerated.  The Band is definitely one of them.

4 His daughter is providing some of the wordless background vocals on this track, in fact.  The Robertsons are part Mohawk.

5 Coincidentally, Music for the Native Americans was recorded at Sunsinger Studios (among other places), and Sunsinger gets an engineer credit on that album.

6 Who are, unsurprisingly, signed to Rosenthal’s Projekt Records.

7 Which I first talked about back on Paradoxically Sized World I.

8 In the fullness of time ... as the mix-starter, even.

9 I know I hadn’t, until writing this post.

10 Who is, not coincidentally at all, the same person who gave the Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand a good deal of its awesomeness.

11 That dubious distinction would certainly have to go to Go Bang!, exclamation point and all.

12 The latter album being whence cometh tunes such as “The Reptiles and I,” which we saw on Slithy Toves, and “Cradle Song,” which I used on Numeric Driftwood II.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Reflections on a Disturbing Election

Last weekend was my birthday, so I celebrated by eating too much, drinking too much, going to see Doctor Strange, and spending lots of time playing D&D and Heroscape with my kids.*  And definitely not thinking about the upcoming (at the time) election.

Now, I’ve made no secret about being a liberal, which many people conflate with being a Democrat.  The truth is, I really don’t care for the Democratic party.  It’s just as corrupt and hypocritical as the Republican party, and just as repsonsible for the two-party stranglehold on our system.  Furthermore, I don’t care for Hillary Clinton.  I liked Obama (before he got into office, anyway), but Clinton I never liked.  She’s too facile, too adaptable to whatever audience she’s addressing, and I don’t believe much of anything she says.  But, you know: that’s how I feel about most politicians, so that’s no great surprise.

And, while I staunchly protest against being labeled a “Democrat,” it’s certainly true that I voted for more Democrats than anything else on this past ballot—and on every ballot I’ve ever filled out, if I’m honest.  I only voted for a single Republican** this year, and that was really only because I had to pick two people out of ten candidates which included eight avowed Republicans.  (And one total nutjob.***  As much as I typically dislike Republicans, they’re still better than nutjobs.)  Which I suppose is the perfect segue into talking about Donald Trump.

But let’s be clear: I don’t disparage Trump because he’s a Republican—truth be told, he’s not much of a Republican.  I disparage Trump because he’s a nutjob.  And, in some ways, worse than a nutjob: he’s the worst sort of scummy salesperson, the kind of sleazy used-car salesman you run away from and decide that riding the bus isn’t so bad; he’s a “rich” guy with six bankruptcies who managed to lose nearly a billion dollars running a casino; and the only time he’s not saying whatever (some) people want to hear is when he’s saying things that are utterly insane.  Most bizarre of all, we now have a “grab-em-by-the-pussy” president.  When I can’t repeat the words of the president-elect of the United States of America at work because I would be committing an HR violation, I have to believe there’s something seriously wrong with our country.

And I’ve heard, and greatly respected, the words of some excellent speakers who have urged us to move on, and to heal, and to try to understand the position of the other side: Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah, and Chris Hardwick, and others.  Hell, Thandie Newton appearing on The Late Show was surprisingly (and beautifully) eloquent on the topic, telling all of us that we need to reach out to the people on the other side, and reminding us that the speech of hate is generally motivated by fear.

And I wish I could go along with that.  But I can’t.  Because of the whole “grab-em-by-the-pussy” thing.

And, yes, I keep saying that, and I’ll probably say it a few more times before we’re done, and, yes, it might offend you, but that’s a good thing.  If it doesn’t offend you, and you voted for Trump, well then I totally understand that and I’m not surprised.  But if it does offend you, and you voted for Trump anyway, then I have a problem with that.  Because, sure: Trump’s not a politician, and all politicians are scum.  I’m right there with you—hell, I voted for Ross Perot, once upon a time.  And Perot was a bit of a nutjob too, and quite probably a bit of a scumbag in business, just like Trump.  But he wasn’t morally repugnant.  And you were voting against Clinton, who is a liar and quite possibly an unconvicted criminal.  I’m with you on that one too, but the problem is that Trump is a liar and quite possibly an unconvicted criminal as well, plus he’s a bully, and a racist, and he said it was okay to grab women by the pussy.

Hopefully I’ve offended you again.  Now, it’s entirely possible that every person who voted for Trump was a racist misogynist scumbag just like he is, but I don’t believe that.  Mainly because I don’t believe that very very close to 50% of the people in this country—or at least 50% of those who voted—are that sort of person.  I’m a cynic, you may recall, but also a romantic, so I retain just enough optimism to refuse to believe that we have that many Ku Klux Klan supporters, and xenophobes, and male chauvinist douchebags.  Oh, there are a lot of them, I know—I’m related to a whole bunch of them, in fact—but half the country?  I’m just not buying it.  So, if you voted for Trump, but you’re not in one of the above categories, then I’m still having difficulty wrapping my head around it.

Oh, sure: I understand not voting for Clinton.  I didn’t vote for her either.  But you could have not voted at all, or voted for Johnson or Stein (or several others, even less well-known), as I did.  We whinge on and on about only having two choices, but no one put a gun to your head and said “pick one of these two.”  Now, many of my co-liberals are now going to scream at me: “you voted for a third party?!? people like you is why Clinton lost!”  I understand that viewpoint.  But it’s oversimplified.  For instance, I happen to live in California.  As I told my eldest while being bitched out for voting third party, it ain’t like if enough people had voted for Hillary California could’ve gone double-Clinton in the electoral college.  Sure, it’s true that in certain places (such as Florida) the difference between Trump’s votes and Clinton’s votes was smaller than the total votes for Johnson, but to assume Johnson cost Clinton the election means assuming that every disaffected Republican who voted Libertarian would have voted for Hillary if he hadn’t been an option ... and that’s just silly.  There were plenty of Republicans who voted for Johnson—or just plain stayed home—and that’s perfectly reasonable.  But they were never going to vote for Clinton.  And the ultimate point is, I have to believe that if only the Klan-loving, woman-hating extremists had voted for Trump, there’s no way he could have won.  (Note: Technically speaking, he didn’t win.  But the vagaries of our electoral college system are the subject of an entirely different rant.)

So I’m really trying to wrap my brain around the rationale for a rational human being voting for Trump.  Because, you may recall, this is a man who said it was okay to grab women by the pussy.  Now, I’ve heard a few defenses of this comment.  One of them goes like this: it’s just locker-room talk.  As Trump himself said: “It’s just words, people.”  Oh, good: because it’s not like we need the president of the United States to be able to talk to people or anything.  Nope, being a leader never involved actually speaking.  So that’s a moronic defense.  Here’s another one I heard today: we just don’t know what Trump will be like as president, so we need to give him a chance and see what he does.  Well, sure: we also don’t know what Charles Manson would be like as president, so let’s elect him next.  You know why we don’t know what Trump will be like as president?  Because he has no fucking experience.  He’s never been in charge of anything other than his daddy’s money.  So, yeah, we technically speaking don’t know what Trump will be like as a president.  But I know what spoiled rich boys are like, and I know what entitled old white men are like, so I think I can make a pretty good guess.

And, you know what, you could accuse me of stereotyping, and being prejudiced in my own right ... except for that whole “grab-em-by-the-pussy” comment.  It really does all come back to that.  I am prejudiced if I assume that Trump will act in the worst way of entitled rich white men if all I know about him is that’s entitled, rich, white, and male.  But the fact of the matter is, I don’t have to make any assumptions about his actions—I don’t need to pre-judge him.  I can actually judge him, because he’s quite open and outspoken and rather blatant in his distasteful, shameful actions, and his almost pitiful need for attention.  People, this is a man whose handlers no longer trust him with his Twitter account.  But we thought he could be trusted with the most powerful military in the world?  I honestly just don’t get it.

I want to move on.  I want the country to heal, and I want to try to empathize with the disaffected and the disenfranchised and the ignored.  But I’m not sure I can.  Because it seems like a significant number of Americans may not have been racist and misogynist themselves, but they’re apparently okay with having a president who is.  And I’m not okay with that.


* And missing another blog post for you guys.  Sorry about that.

** That I know of.  I voted for three people with no expressed party affiliation, so any or all of them may have been Republican as well.

*** Well, actually, I think one of the Republicans may have been a nutjob too.  But I wasn’t completely sure.