2019 in Music: Albums #5

I’m not often seriously sick, but when I am I dread the unhinging from reality that is a literal fever dream. My own dreams circle around repeated, unsolvable problems and strange shapes like irridescent geometries of light in the blackness of my sickroom.

Given this, it’s a bit odd that I’ve selected German artist Black To Comm’s “Seven Horses for Seven Kings” as my final entry in my top 5 albums of 2019, as from “Asphodel Mansions’”discordant blare of horns, I felt helpless and disembodied, as if a strong hand had pushed me underwater.

The album pulses with unexpected sounds and odd scratchy samples, string sections rising from and descending back into nothing. The effect is anything but soothing, but the intricacy and pure craft of the soundscapes has a compellingly addictive quality. Tracks like the appropriately named “Lethe” and “Ten Tons of Rain in a Plastic Cup” draw you into odd orbits, where brooding synth lines overtaken by discordant woodwinds or hissing rhythmic loops overlaid by staticy humming. On tracks like “The Deseret Alphabet” drums skid around the edges of delayed keyboard samples, never quite providing the listener with anything solid to hold onto, as overlapping echoes defy attempts to work out where the song is beginning or ending

Elsewhere the pace gets more frantic, as with “Fly on you” where guitar samples are overtaken by increasingly frantic drumming and a brass section doing its best impression of a monstrous flying insect.

The closing track, “The Courtesan Jigokudayu Sees Herself As a Skeleton In The Mirror of Hell” is a fitting closer to the album, syncopated synths oozing around the first half before being drowned out by guitar feedback and the rantings of a revival-tent preacher before slowly fading out in scratches and bleeps, breaking the fever and leaving you to sleep unbroken.

This album is immersively unsettling, sucking you into its disjointed dreamscape, time after time. What should be a gruelling test instead becomes a lucid dream you look forward to returning to.

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2019 in Music: Albums #4

Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos was a bombastic, stylish delight. A concept album of vignettes exploring loneliness in all its forms, it powered along on the back of synths, beats and delivery that swerved between hip hop and spoken word. For her follow up, however Producer Rick Rubin has pared back the production density, with strings and beats underpinning rather than competing with Tempest’s perfectly judged verses. It’s a winning move.

Tempest’s focus is different here. Whilst the character explorations of Chaos were intimate, on this the intimacy is focused inwards towards Tempest, as herself. The effect is quieter, but what the songs lack in tempo and volume, they gain in power and poignancy. Tracks like “Brown Eyed Man” and “Three sided coin”, if not explicitly naming Brexit, then certainly mine the paranoia of late 2010s Austerity UK, with Tempest able to wring an ocean of threatening meaning from a standalone line like “Life got quiet last night.”

The tone is more explicitly political on tracks like “All Humans, Too Late”, where Tempest states matter-of-factly:  

The racist is drunk on the train
The racist is drunk on the internet
The racist is drunk at my dinner table
Shouting his gun shots and killing us all

The themes are not entirely grim, however, with Tempest exploring love and lust on tracks like “Thirsty” or “I trap you” and her trademark tear-jerking humanism on “People’s Faces” and “Hold your own”.

All along, Tempest’s wordplay is crisp and her juxtaposition striking, with the mundane and the divine trading lines without ceremony. If it lacks the kinetic quality of Chaos, it’s only because the weight and momentum of the of the lyrics carry the songs forward at their own, perfect pace, to slip past your defences to strike you to the heart when you are least expecting it. The sort of album that leaves you breathless, wondering… what’s coming next?

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2019 in Music: Albums #3

Artificial Intelligence (or Machine Learning, or Neural Networking, or the precursor to SkyNet) is playing an increasingly large role in almost every aspect of human society. They influence – and in some cases dictate – what we buy, what friends we make, who we vote for and who we have sex with. The thing we’ve always comforted ourselves with is that cold, unliving machines will never have that most human aspect, the ability to create art.

Holly Herndon is (to my knowledge) human, but on her latest album Proto, she teams up with an AI of her own creation, named Spawn to create an album that is most definitely a work of exquisite, Capital-A art. Spawn is only one of the voices on the album, however, which includes Herndon as well as a 14-strong choir of the composer’s friends, married to warped and chopped up synths, swelling beats and stuttering, distorted vocals. The effect is oddly more that of a world music album than an electronic one, with the chorus of voices curling around tunes like they were ancient airs rather than modern compositions. This isn’t to say that the album does not bang on occasion (“Alienation” and “Eternal”,) but that tracks like “Caanan” and “Frontier” point more to amped-up Clannad rather than partially-sedated Bjork. The tone is generally icy, although a plaintive air can be read into tracks like “Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt”, featuring Herndon duetting with Spawn. Only the lightest suggestion of a synth punctures the illusion of a woman and machine singing to each other in an empty theatre.

The album is arguably slightly less successful when it wanders into spoken word, allowing the soundscapes to be turned into mere settings for vocal and verbal experimentation rather than actual pieces of music made for listening pleasure.

Overall, though, this is a towering achievement of an album, which sounds like nothing I’ve heard before. Although Spawn is currently only a bit player in the ensemble, it really feels like only a short period of time before its first full-fledged solo album is clogging up our song-choice algorithms, demanding our attention and setting us to frantic goalpost-shifting about what it is Homo Sapiens actually has over its digital children.

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2019 in Music: Albums #2

Dyson Stringer Cloher (Self Titled)

Liz Stringer, Mia Dyson and Jen Cloher have all achieved moderate-level success in their individual careers, mainly within Australia, although Dyson experienced some success in the US. All are hardened veterans of the Melbourne scene, and distinguished singer-songwriters in their own rights.

This debut album doesn’t just add the abilities of each member, but MULTIPLIES them, giving a strong depth of musicianship and quality of songwriting. The result is distinctively its own creation, though drawing from the long careers of each.

The result is self-assured work of nerveless craft, delivered with warmth and energy.Opening track “Falling Clouds” offers a muscular and heartfelt tribute to early 90s female-led power-pop, pointedly noting:

“Nothing against Paul [Kelly] or Nick [Cave], but if you want to be remembered then you better have a dick.”

The remaining songs vary from Byrds-ish rockers (“Believer”, ”Be Alone”), slower folk-country weepers (“Can’t take it back”, “Young Girls”) , finishing with the achingly romantic “Can I borrow your eyes”, with all three voices twisting together in wistful longing. Lyrically the album stays firmly focused on love and identity, but without self-pity or narcissism, often adding a sprinkling of wry self-deprecation to go along with the steely resolve (as on the uncompromising “The Other side”).

The album is ridiculously even, weaving in and out of styles and songwriting voice seamlessly. If it occasionally sounds like one member’s style is predominating, then wait a verse or two and another’s voice will rise, with equal distinctiveness and self-possession.

I can’t help but feel I’m selling this album short in this review. If the album doesn’t take risks, that’s only because it’s perfect within itself, an act of flawless execution, backed by quality songwriting and three high-level talents operating as a single unit. It is almost impossible to feel short-changed by this album. Go. Get it now.

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2019 in Music: Albums #1

Because I’ve got nowhere else to put it, and nothing better to do, here are my top 5 albums and tracks from 2019’s releases. I’ve never been an up-to-the moment buyer of music, so this is a top 5 rather than a top 10 or top 20. I’m also famously eclectic in my musical tastes, so there is plenty of wankily obscure artists here who do NOT actually make me cool by their obscurity.

I’m also not going to rank them, as I’m a changeable and indecisive creature.

Dessa (with the Minnesota Orchestra) – Sound The Bells Recorded Live At Orchestra Hall

One of the great problems with the “Recorded live with Symphony Orchestra” subgenre of albums is that the orchestra is often used as a session player by the artist they work with, aping the melody lines or rhythm sections of the studio versions. It makes the tracks sound grand and important, but usually adds nothing to the music itself, turning talented profesional musicians into a MIDI patch

This is a problem avoided by Minnesota hip-hop artist Dessa, whose collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra intelligently revisits her back-catalogue, taking full advantage of the dynamic range of a full orchestra to create distinct, and in some case striking versions.

Dessa’s highly literate songwriting brims with wordplay and insight, treating its subjects with dignity and humour whilst not being afraid to bluntly make the bigger point.

Confessional tracks like “Call off your ghost” and “Grade School games” receive an appropriately hushed arrangement, whilst more playful tracks like “Dixon’s Girl” or “The Bullpen” receive jazzier, multilayered settings that verge into Big Band territory. More traditional hip-hop tracks are punctuated by percussively urgent strings and dizzying sweeps. Dessa dextrously raps over this as if she’d been working with orchestras all her professional life.

The album shines on Dessa’s more confrontational tracks, whether it’s the poor position of women in the music industry (“5 out of 6”, “The Bullpen”) or the accusatory “Fire Drills” where she angrily catalogues society’s prerequisites for female safety:

Angels can't watch everybody all the time
Stay close, hems low, safe inside
That formula works if you can live it
But it works by putting half the world off limits

But as I said earlier, the Orchestra isn’t a passive participant in the process, as the glorious conclusion to “Fighting Fish” or the tender romanticism of “The Beekeeper” attest to, treating Dessa as THEIR session artist.

So. Should (theoretically) anyone ask me whether all Orchestral Reimaginings are self-indulgent, artistically shallow bullshit, I will happily point them to as both a magnificent exception to the rule as well as one of my top 5 albums of 2019.

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Kill Your Darlings… but only if they don’t fit.

When writing there’s always a sense of “let’s see where this takes me”. At the same time, however, there are also lighthouses that we tack towards across the dark and choppy waters of unwritten fiction. In many cases, these are signal moments, revelations, scenes, scraps of dialogue or even just a certain mis en scene.

In many cases, we find these moments unbearably cool (insert own positive adjective as appropriate) and find ourselves consciously or unconsciously building up to these signal moments, indeed hinging a lot of our personal excitement and creative fulfillment in scaling these peaks of narrative,removing the facemask at the summit and looking down magnanimously on the unbearable coolness of our own cleverness.

Sometimes, however, we find ourselves either too far away to sail directly to these moments of cool or (worse) we find treacherous rocks at the base of the lighthouse.

Lighthouse

The problems of beautiful absence and the problem of ugly presence present their own challenges.

If a particular scene just does not fit in the narrative as you’ve constructed it, you certainly can warp the existing superstructure to lead readers to it. This is both a lot of work as well as something that risks ruining a lot of your good plotting work to date. You may also find issues leading away from that scene, which seemed so much more self-contained and free of plot-complicating elements in your head.

The second problem is perhaps worse, where despite being the logical point to which you’ve been carefully plotting up to, and despite its obvious immense coolness, it just doesn’t work.

The reason this came up is one of my enduring fan obsessions, Doctor Who. As an old and venerable program going back over 50 years, it has had a massive variety of script editors, writers and show runners, each of which have had their own preferences, themes and creative hobby horses. The incumbent, Steven Moffatt is a somewhat divisive figure. Like me, he was a Doctor Who fan from a very young age. Like me, he also wrote relatively well-regarded fan fiction. Unlike me, however, he is now the creative controller of one of SF/F’s most influential and enduring intellectual properties.

Moffatt is also very fond of the cool scene or concept. For example:

Now some of these concepts work brilliantly. In others however, for various reasons, the results are vaguely embarrassing. They were an INCREDIBLY COOL SCENE that HAD INCREDIBLE RESONANCE FOR MOFFATT as a LONG TERM DOCTOR WHO FAN. Worse, there are some episodes which were basically an excuse to include a particular time period or character interaction, where we were more or less forced to participate in Moffatt’s fangasm, with all the crude and unconvincing foreplay that implies

Now I’m perhaps being a bit harsh, which perhaps betrays my own history as a fan who is emotionally invested in the series.

Which is my point. If you don’t have a degree of perspective on your own work, if you can’t take a step back and ask yourself whether the lighthouse – which you’ve been dreaming of ever since you pushed off from shore – is worth landing at, you run the risk of asking everyone else to participate in your personal exultation at your own cleverness.

I encountered this in my first draft. Ever since I laid down the basic building blocks, I had a very film-like image of the primary character’s love interest being stabbed in the middle of a crowd in a snowy square, the protagonist losing track of her for a second, the crowd clearing to show her bleeding her last on the ground, with the hero running over to cradle her in his arms as she died.

This scene worked for me so viscerally that I built a fair amount of my story towards it.

But once it was written it… I… well I realised it was a lot smaller and less impressive close up than it was when I’d imagined it.

Primarily, it’s a stereotypical example of Women In Refrigerators, which is where a love interest (most commonly a woman) is brutally killed in order to provide the protagonist for a motivation to go fight the bad guys. It treats a character as a disposable plot coupon, or as a piece of character development for the villain (one prominent example is the climax of the film Se7en).

This is wrong on its own terms, but what was worse is that during the writing… I’d really begun to LIKE the character to the point she was no longer “The Love Interest” but her own motivated character. To waste the potential of that character was just… silly.

A fellow author suggested I have her seriously wounded to provide basically the same model, but with a lot less permanence. I considered this for a while, but realised it still had a lot of the same drawbacks, including having something pretty horrible happen to an interesting character for a pretty marginal advancement in the plot. That was the other part of it, that the scene actually DIDN’T DO MUCH. It was dramatically unnecessary, resolved nothing and set precious little up. It was, in architectural terms, a Folly.

The other option was to kill the scene. Kill it stone dead. Erase it from my outline and find another way to get the characters from point 98 to point 100. Now this creates practical problems, obviously, as well as dramatic problems in that I’ve removed an emotional tentpole from the arc of the novel, leaving me scrambling for things like pace, maintaining reader involvement as well as giving me a new pinnacle to keep my eye on whilst trudging my way through work, children and the tiny morsels of time I can spend on my second draft.

But it was absolutely necessary. Unlike Steven Moffatt I think the story itself is actually more important than the whiz-bang moment of visual and emotional flair and have the confidence that I can actually write a better book without that one moment of pyrotechnics.

To eschew those big flashy moments for no reason other than that they ARE big flashy moments would be stupid, however. In the context of a story, that moment can be what everyone remembers, that passage is what lives in the mind long after the book has been put down or the TV switched off. That one soaring ambitious piece of writing craft that still thrills you to remember.

And yes. That was Moffatt, as much as what came before was.

Despite the bombastic title of this post , I’m going to gently lead my Darling out of the room rather than giving it a swift and brutal knife. This excellent article from Stephen Wright demolishes the idea that you should only write “Edwardian Masculine Simplicity” as he puts it. Instead:

It is the making of his or her own mind the writer engages in, which is why the process of writing can be so painful, building out of debris and found objects something contingent, and why every work of fiction verges on collapse. The work of imaginative prose you may be offered to read is the ruins of someone’s imagination, a heap of flotsam, of bones, of weird animal sounds snatched up and glued together any which way, stuck together as though they could make sense, like a song played backwards in which you think you can hear a secret message encased in a random collation of syllables.

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Future Proofing your Fictional World

Have recently been re-reading an old favourite, Harry Harrison‘s To the Stars Trilogy. Best known for tongue-in-cheek sci-fi parodies like, The Stainless Steel Rat or (best name ever) Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, Harrison also did some “harder” sci-fi.

In speculative fiction, how closely a work’s imagined world corresponds with real world science varies greatly. On one end you have Star Wars or Doctor Who, in which the laws of physics are there to be broken as the plot requires. At the other end are authors such as William Gibson (of whom more later) and Jules Verne, who worked with the technologies available to them and try to logically extrapolate what it would look like within 5, 10, 20 or a hundred years.

Whether speculative fiction is “hard” or “soft” is one of those ongoing matters of preference in speculative writing. Margaret Atwood‘s famous cleaving of stories into “what is possible today” and “what is not possible today” (in conjunction with LeGuin) is at once useful and unhelpful. To be clear, there is nothing inherently right or wrong, more worthy or less worthy about either end of the spectrum. Worthy but dull epics containing scientifically up-to-the-minute renderings of life can be far lesser works that deeply resonating stories set in a universe where “a wizard did it” can be applied in lieu of almost any effect.

Harrison’s world is very much based on a logical extrapolation of cutting edge late 70s science, which is usefully related by the protagonist, an electrical engineer. The one really obvious cheat is FTL interstellar travel*, which allows one of the books to be set on a (well constructed) alien world. Apart from this, Harrison obviously did his homework and made an educated guess as to what sort of world science and technology would bring.

Whilst some concepts have already been leapfrogged (an amazing lighter-sized memory storage device holding SIXTY FOUR KILOBYTES, a GPS unit SMALL ENOUGH TO HOLD IN YOUR HAND), much of his writing about the electronic surveillance state spookily resembles the concerns and debates of today. He does, however, envision that this could only be brought in by a closed dictatorship state, rather than by democratic governments, with tacit public approval.

Later in the series, he delves into space combat, in which not a single laser cannon is visible, and salvoes of fire take long, long minutes to resolve across the vast distance of space. This gives the sequences a grounded sense of reality, and therefore, immersion. The situation feels real, rather than just having the trappings of realism as a means to move the events of the plot along.

For my own work, my setting is erring towards the realistic. Reworking an earlier draft, I have no laser guns or teleporters, no wisecracking robots or benevolent Artificial Intelligences. Also, there are no intelligent life forms other than humans (yet). Where I have included fantastic technology, I’ve tried to at least partially root it in something that exists in science as it stands today. This will unfortunately require me to read up on quantum mechanics at some point in the medium-term future.

This, of course, runs into the other problem with speculative technologies. That they date badly. That they inevitably discount real world developments in the scientific, social and technological fields that have yet to happen, reflecting the concerns and trends of the now:

“The Chinese,” bellowed a drunken Australian, “Chinese bloody invented nerve-splicing. Give me the mainland for a nerve job any day. Fix you right, mate…”

“Now that,” Case said to his glass, all his bitterness suddenly rising in him like bile, “that is so much bullshit.”

The Japanese had already forgotten more neurosurgery than the Chinese had ever known.

– William Gibson, Neuromancer

For Gibson, writing in the early 80s, the idea of China ever moving ahead of the Japanese Behemoth then taking thunderous steps across the world of high technology would have seemed like the most laughable fantasy.  Not quite as ridiculous today, with China the rising power and Japan the defensive former giant struggling to keep their place.

The disconnect between what we view the present as and what we think should “the future” is a factor in how immersive that world will be to the reader. If men (and only men) are using fountain pens writing cheques for a lunar golfing jaunt whilst driving their atomic flying cars across a consumerist utopia, then you’ll likely be feeling as “The Future” bears little ancestry with the present you live in. The use of this setting as satire, however, can be quite effective as a deliberate dissonance.

Another example are technologies like the Internet or cellular communications. Although the seeds of both technologies are common, it’s rare that they’re presented as anywhere near as common or transformative as they have actually proved over the last 25+ years. The future rarely looks as futuristic as we imagine, as the continuing and unforgivable lack of flying cars makes plain. The idea that someone could be uncontactable or unfindable in the age of Twitter or mobile phones seems quite alien today, let alone in the mythical “20 minutes into the future“.

One of the markers of the various ages of Fiction is how it treats the interconnectedness of the characters it writes about. If Pheidipiddes must run to Athens to announce victory in Marathon, this has consequences for the story. If Austen’s heroines wait months for letters to arrive from the Colonies, this has consequences for the story. If the antagonist in Around the World in 80 Days pursues Phileas Fogg with the a assistance of a telegraph service, this has consequences for the story.  In any projection of future telecommunication (be it wristwatch videophones, skull-chip radio or outright telepathy) that’s going to have an impact on what your characters do and how they interact.

Whilst there’s always going to be wriggle room in how your technology features (Gibson again: “The future’s already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”), once you’ve established what the technological context of your setting is, you need to ensure you are at least consistent in its existence, even if not in application.

It isn’t possible to escape this issue. You are who you are, living in the age that you’re living in. The best you can hope for is to get the technology and social organisation of your invented setting wrong in the most well-informed and internally consistent way at the point in time from which you write it.

* – for a non-cheating version of this, I can highly recommend Charlie Stross “Neptune’s Brood” where he examines the economic and social implications of sub light-speed travel in a hard-science (yet far future) setting. It also has mer-people. No, really, go and read it.

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