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Archive for October, 2006

Genres

Posted by Mike on October 25, 2006

As an enthusiast of both literature and music, I often have the chance to compare how various fields deal with the issue of genre or classification. Probably my largest article on this issue can be found at the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock (link on right), which is something of an overview of progressive rock.

There’s a disturbing tendency, whether in progressive rock or the speculative fiction fields, to want to canonize genre, to make it something specific and well-defined. However for any definition of genre, there are always exceptions that cloud the issue. I’ve been noticing this frequently of late, particularly when writing the liner notes for Alan Sorrenti’s Aria. It became obvious that even though Aria is a record classified as progressive rock by just about anyone, it’s not really much of a rock record at all. And then in listening to some Canadian albums from the 70s I thought the same thing, particularly with albums by Charles Kaczynski and L’Engouvelent. Progressive, maybe, but neither of the sole albums by both of these artists could remotely be called rock – neither have much of what amounts to the rock backbone of bass and drums, in fact both would be closer to classical or folk music. However, I’ve never come across a conversation where the “progressive rock” canonicity of Alan Sorrenti, L’Engouvelent or Charles Kaczynski was ever in question. All seem embraced by the enthusiast, often the same enthusiast who will be the first to point out why something else is not progressive rock.

It seems obvious there is a spirit at work, above and beyond the necessity for progressive rock to be either progressive or rock. It’s what I refer to as the genre’s assimilative quality in the GEPR article. One of the first articles I ever read on art rock or progressive rock was a Tower Pulse one-pager on the best art rock albums. Noone is likely to mistake Tangerine Dream for Yes, Genesis or even Roxy Music, but the author of said article had a number of varying genres music all lumped under the classification of art rock. Of course, this article was written long before the internet, but it was obvious that the thread that tied all these disparate styles together had nothing to do with the styles themselves, but something else altogether. A spirit, if you will.

This spirit seems to date back to festivals like Woodstock and concerts put on by Bill Graham and the like. In today’s musical field, you may have a festival for the jam band crowd, a jazz festival or a progressive rock festival, but in the early days of rock, genres weren’t so delineated. Jimi Hendrix played on the same bill as Sha Na Na. Miles Davis followed Tiny Tim on stage at the Isle of Wight. Folkies played next to the rock bands and jazzers. It’s hard to imagine the academic progressive rock fan at these shows arguing with each other about who should have been there or not.

But this is what happens today. The ratings site I cocreated, Gnosis, has come under fire numerous times for not sticking to a canonical definition of progressive rock, despite the fact that even from the beginning it wasn’t designed to be a canonical progressive rock website. Despite explaining in great detail that Gnosis goes by the spirit rather than the letter, that its inclusiveness is more in the spirit of the classic Fillmore shows of the late 60s and 70s, there are those who would still be offended that Sha Na Na played at Woodstock, or more recently Steve Roach at NEARfest.

Progressive rock wasn’t created in a vacuum and, apparently considered contradictory today, it was as much of a child of popular/populist music as any experimental tendencies. To reduce it to representing a largely compositional, symphonic music (or even a strictly experimental or literally progressive music) does it a grave injustice that divorces it from its own rich genre bending history. Arguing conversely that it makes every genre “progressive rock” denies the spirit, the same spirit that assimilates Sorrenti, Kazcynski, L’Engouvelent, Malicorne, and Tangerine Dream into the pantheon of interest, even if one could stick to the letter of the law and deny Sorrenti’s inclusion on its lacking anything resembling a rock edge.

Genres exist as a method of classification, however artists resist the same classification. The spirit of art will go where it will, not stopping at the same thresholds the fans do, particularly those fans who love strawberry-kiwi smoothies and who find strawberry-kiwi juice or banana smoothies noncanonical.

It’s this spirit vs. letter that is part of the difficulty. The letter insists that progressive rock is the thread of music that dates back to the Moody Blues, through Genesis and Yes. It also insists that symphonic folk artists like L’Engoulevent are not progressive rock, after all, it doesn’t rock in any way.

The spirit works differently. It can’t be defined or explained in the same way that the mystical experience can’t be imparted. It’s generally experiential and differs from individual to individual. My definition of the “spirit” of progressive rock is going to differ from anyone reading this. I could talk about it in terms of the hermetic element “spirit,” the “spirit” of the old music festivals or even just the acknowledgement of having been a musician in a band and having periodically experienced whatever spirit it is that turned a mess into perfection for segments of time. The spirit is ambitious, it exalts. It eschews convention and definition, it creates connections that aren’t necessarily obvious. One is as likely to prove such a spirit exists as one is to prove the universality of a personal mystical experience. As soon as you can grasp what it is, it slips from the grasp and mutates. Randi’s $1 million dollars are safe.

When something loses its ambiguity, it also loses some of its mystery. Were Gnosis to come out and render a strict definition for inclusion, it’s not only jazz, electronic, pop and folk that will come under fire, but those records assumed as canon by a majority. The story of Genesis in the bible works beautifully as myth, legend or metaphor, but taken literally it becomes an abomination to common sense and scientific evidence, in itself creating far more rules than it solves in order to render its literalism reasonable. Genre is similar, as soon as the rules are defined and delineated, it becomes the exclusive gatekeeper, rendering subtlety and sublimity worthless. Literalism is anathema to art, it suffocates and constricts, whether artist or critic.

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Every once in a while…

Posted by Mike on October 23, 2006

…the US Government does something right.

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What I’m Watching

Posted by Mike on October 20, 2006

The new season is now underway on the telly, so I thought I’d talk a little about what I’m watching. I’m of the opinion, generally, that dramas on TV have been generally improving over the last couple years, so there’s quite a bit to watch. Here’s what I’m checking out during the week:

Monday

The only show I’ve been watching on Monday’s is NBC’s new series Heroes, which also repeats on Friday nights on the Sci-Fi channel. Heroes is fairly intriguing, and I particularly like this sort of thing because I prefer longer arc shows to standalones and Heroes reels off chapter by chapter. Its premise is that ordinary people around the world (well, mostly the USA) are developing superpowers of a sort. What’s keeping me coming back week to week are the slowly revealed clues to the bigger picture, often revealed in the episodes’ cliffhangers. Right now many of the characters are separated so there’s not a lot of cohesion yet, but I’m particularly intrigued by Hiro, whose power seems to be to be able to teleport himself through space and time. His thread delivered something of a whopper of a cliffhanger last week, hinting at a much more complex plot than it seems at the moment. The negatives are some of the actors/actresses, whose acting can be fairly wooden at times, there’s no obvious chemistry going on with anyone yet.

Heroes, NBC, 9 PM, B-

Tuesday

The best show of the new year would be NBC’s Friday Night Lights, which I believe is moving to Monday at 10 next week as it has been suffering in the ratings, while conversely doing very well critically. It’s story, based on the book which also inspired a movie, is about a small town Texan high school football team, using that concept to spin stories about the town and how the team affects various people. I knew I was onto something special when at the end of the first episode, after a tragedy, the team prays on field together in Southern Baptist fashion without being at all offensive or cheesy. It’s since moved from strength to strength, the acting in general is fabulous. A show I’d hate to see cancelled.

Also on Tuesday’s is Veronica Mars, now in its third season. The highlights of this show are generally the good scripts and snappy dialogue, although I wouldn’t really put this one up in my favorites, I’m mostly still watching because the first season was so strong and the quality hasn’t totally dived. It’s pretty typical for WB/now CW sorts of shows, except quite a bit cleverer. Post Buffy if you will.

Friday Night Lights, NBC, Monday, 10 PM, A-
Veronica Mars, CW, Tuesday, 9 PM, C+

Wednesday

This is the biggest day of the week and at least for the next few weeks, I watch four programs. The first is the new post-nuclear war apocalyptic story “Jericho” on CBS at 7 PM. Again, this is not flawless television, but like “Heroes” it’s episodic in a very Lost sort of way and manages to reveal a couple new plot developments every week. I’m guessing what’s happening isn’t as straight as a post-Nuclear war situation and it ought to get fairly interesting as we learn more about the secretive characters.

I’ve started checking out new situation comedy 30 Rock on NBC, mostly because Tracy Morgan was the last SNL actor to make me laugh. Its premise is behind the scenes of a comedy show a la SNL. Two episodes have aired, this last week’s episode being extremely funny as Tina Fey tries to get her cast back in working order after being saddled with Morgan’s character Tracy Jordan. The show is tanking in the ratings now, however, so it may not last. Besides, the writing team never did it for me on SNL, so I’m wondering how fluke-y my appreciation is at the moment. I should probably mention the comedy that comes after this one with Jeffrey Tambour, except I can’t remember its name and I’m mostly watching it to fill the gap from 8 30 to 9. Fairly funny if a big reminder of comedies from the 80s and 90s, thus giving it a bit of a dated feel.

Season 3 of Lost is underway and it’s something of a mixed bag this year now that we’re half way through it’s initial 6 episodes (the story resumes next year after these are done). I generally like the show because a lot of weird, unexplained stuff happens and I probably differ with a lot of detractors who feel they don’t explain things fast enough. It gives me a Twilight Zone-ish vibe and has been a standard appointment ever since I came in to the show in the first season. It’s probably not as good as it was, though, and things are getting pretty scattered now.

One of the great joys of the new season is the return of South Park, which hasn’t been this funny the last couple years. Three episodes have aired, and both the first one (with the kids playing World of Warcraft) and last Wednesday’s episode about Ike’s Kindergarten teacher are two of the best (and sickest) eps I’ve seen from the show in a long while. It’s great to see it’s not tanking anymore as it has always been one of my favorites.

Jericho, CBS, 7 PM, B-
30 Rock, NBC, 8 PM, C+
Lost, ABC, 9 PM, C+
South Park, Comedy Central, 10 PM, A-

Thursday

I’ve got two competing shows during the 8 PM hour that I like, although this is probably my least favorite night of the week. Been watching Smallville for a while and even if it’s not a show I’d particularly recommend, it’s occasionally entertaining, especially when the story is part of a larger arc rather than a standalone. Last night’s episode was probably the best of the season so far, involving the Green Arrow, although I still find that the dialogue and acting can be pretty clunky even now that we’re in Season 6. The other show, is the US version of The Office, that now that it’s in its third season is departing in many ways from the classic British version. The series’ fantastic premise, familiar to anyone who works in a similar situation, allows for lots of laughs even when the stories are absurd.

Smallville, CW, 8 PM, C-
The Office, NBC 8:30 PM, B-

Friday

One of my three favorite television shows (I’ll talk about the other two in a sec)  is now in its third season, the revamp of Battlestar Galactica. While I still feel like I’m in a holding pattern in terms of what I think of the new episodes, the first two seasons of this were A television and I own the DVDs, feeling I liked the show even better the second time through (this is not really a series you can come in easily in the middle). Similarly, it wouldn’t surprise me if a rewatch would improve my understanding of the New Caprica milieu.

I should also give a shout out to Doctor Who as well, although this is a show that I grew up with when I lived in Britian and is almost genetically hardwired into me now to the point where I enjoy it flaws and all. I’m actually up with the British schedule at the moment and waiting for the spinoff, adult series Torchwood to start this weekend, so I don’t always catch the Sci-Fi channel versions, but now it’s sandwiched between Heroes and BSG, I’m far more inclined to watch it again. Last week’s airing and tonight’s eps were my favorites of the season, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, tonight’s a good night.

Heroes (repeat), 7 PM, Sci-Fi
Doctor Who (US airing), 8 PM, Sci-Fi, B
Battlestar Galactica, 9 PM, Sci-Fi, A- (overall A)

Others

I would have called Deadwood (HBO, A) my favorite show until the disappointing Season 3 climax. It’s about over now, though, with only two more movies being produced to finish the series, something of a grave disappointment (tempered by Season 3 naturally). That drop put it about even with FX’s The Shield (A), whose Season 5 early this year was probably the best full season of television I’ve ever seen. It’s been pushed back to return next March, something I can’t wait for especially after Forrest Whitaker’s amazing performances. 24 (B) starts next January and even though it has more plot holes than a swiss cheese, is usually a fun night of escapist television.

There’s a few other shows I’m interested in checking out, including The Nine, Eureka, and Ugly Betty, but things change when NBA season starts so I’m not trying to get overwhelmed.

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Tim Lebbon – Fears Unnamed

Posted by Mike on October 20, 2006

Fears Unnamed is a collection of four novellas by horror writer Tim Lebbon. It includes a new story, “Remnants,” a reprint from “White and Other Tales of Ruin” (“White” itself), a novella from “As the Sun Goes Down” called “The Unfortunate,” and a reprint of the PS Publishing novella “Naming of Parts.”

Was really taken with this collection, enough to start As the Sun Goes Down immediately after finishing the last novella. Lebbon has a very economical, character-based style that gets you right into the mind of his beleaguered protagonists. The first novella is probably the weakest, a novella that seems inspired by the Weird Tales writers like Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and others, as a man is called by his archaeologist friend to join him at the site to reveal a secret. After weathering a storm in a tent that destroys most of the site, the two find an entry into the underground. What’s down there is well-described, if somewhat familiar if you know the genre.

“White” won the British Fantasy Award and is being developed for a movie.  A group of people are surrounded by snow in an apocalyptic situation and soon become under siege by malevolent entities that start to pick the party off one by one. The situation degenerates at a nice pace and the denouement is particularly impressive, if a little on the Blair Witch side in its ambiguity.

My favorite novella in the book was “The Unforunate.” The protagonist is saved from a trans-Atlantic plane wreck by four mysterious entities that call themselves Amaranth, described as fairies, demons, angels or gods. These beings show him some strange visions before allowing him to resume his life with his wife and child, only for the man to find that his luck is inversely related to that of the people he loves. As the novella progresses, the Amaranth are always just out of sight and the protagonist is usually aware of their presence. It all climaxes in some very grisly violence as he attempts to take his life (not really a spoiler, this is revealed in the first couple pages).

The last novella also won an award (the BFA as well iirc) and is something of a classic apocalyptic zombie story, except seen through the eyes of a 12 year boy. Some bomb has gone off turning all life into flesh-eating monsters and killing off all the plant life as well. It’s very depressing, as the boy and his parents try to make for the closest town, where the boy’s sister has run away to. The fears of the boy are well-defined and written, and there’s a couple nice twists to keep one guessing. Apparently PS Publishing has released a sequel to this, which ought to be interesting.

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Just bought tickets to…

Posted by Mike on October 18, 2006

the Alice Coltrane Quartet. I never thought I’d get a chance to see Alice Coltrane, since she rarely plays live, and even this year, I believe this is only one of three gigs she’ll be playing. With Ravi, Charlie Haden and Roy Haynes, it should be fabulous. If all goes well, we should be checking out Myra Melford’s band the same day, in the afternoon, as well. Will likely report on these at Outer Music in a few weeks.

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M. John Harrison – The Pastel City

Posted by Mike on October 17, 2006

One of the most anticipated reprints in recent years is the omnimbus called Viriconium, collecting two novels, a novella and a short story collection. While much of its reputation comes from the novella and stories written in the 80s, you have to go back to 1972 for the genesis of the city known as Viriconium, Perhaps, to some extent, its reprint was made more possible by some of the modern fantasists in recent years creating unique cities of their own like Jeff VanderMeer or China Mieville.

So it’s somewhat ironic that The Pastel City actually doesn’t take place in the Pastel City, even if Viriconium is a looming influence on the plot. The flavor and setting of this first novel obviously comes down from Clark Ashton Smith (Zothique) through Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, and in many ways it predates Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun with it’s far-future, civilization in its final throes milieu. However, Harrison’s prose style, even this early, is distinct from any of these very individual writers. It’s hard to imagine as a Harrison newbie that the “series” (it is and isn’t, but I’ll get to that some other time) improves so drastically, as in some ways this seems like Harrison reworking some of Michael Moorcock’s early pulp books with a more literary sheen.

The plot is very concise and simple compared to the labyrinthine complexities of most modern series, something I found pretty refreshing. It follows tegeus-Cromis, a fighter who would rather be a poet involved in a large war made possible through treachery. Its cast of characters are not drawn in detail and in retrospect certain figures like Tomb the dwarf are somewhat cliche, although this mad dwarf with rotting teeth has an 11 foot set of powered armor that gives it a bit of a different slant. And in fact, it’s the way the world is drawn that fascinates me, more the interaction of the characters with the novel’s events than the characters themselves as they encounter advanced technology and the horrors it has left Viriconium and its environs.

It’s true, Wolfe’s quartet trumps this in the overall scheme of things, and it is series and novels such as it that lessen the impact of The Pastel City. However, the wry humor of Vance is not here, nor the macabre weirdness of Smith,  and thus the flavor of the book is vastly different. I’m also reminded a little of Paul McAuley’s later Confluence series as well. Even Leiber’s novella Ship of Shadows. Looking forward to the next one.

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Press 1 to continue

Posted by Mike on October 16, 2006

I’ve noticed a change in the Wells Fargo automated telephone service that I find baffling. You call, you enter your account number, and then your pin number for confirmation. The next message is “Press 1 to Continue.” No other options. Does anyone who gets this far actually not want to continue? Nah, just felt like punching my account number and information into the telephone, thanks, bye!

I think I need a new category called “Seinfeld” or “Larry David” for this sort of thing.

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Books/CDs Received; Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum; Jack McDevitt – The Engines of God; Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire; Jeff VanderMeer – Why Should I Cut Your Throat?

Posted by Mike on October 16, 2006

Books: 

  • Paul Auster – Mr. Vertigo
  • Dino Buzzati – The Tartar Steppe
  • Kim Stanley Robinson – The Martians
  • Harlan Ellison and other Wild Talents – Partners in Wonder
  • F. Paul Wilson – The Tomb
  • Robert J. Sawyer – Hybrids
  • Gene Wolfe – The Wizard (The Wizard Knight Book Two)
  • Ian Banks – The Business
  • Samuel R. Delany – Neveryona
  • Fredrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good & Evil
  • Harlan Ellison/Isaac Asimov – I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay
  • Robert J. Sawyer – Iterations
  • Katherine Neville – The Eight
  • Robert A. Heinlein – Expanded Universe
  • Orson Scott Card – Ender’s Shadow
  • Nicola Griffith – Stay
  • Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon
  • Larry Niven – N-Space
  • Robert A. Heinlein – Job: A Comedy of Justice
  • Gene Wolfe – Castleview
  • Mark Helprin – Winter’s Tale
  • Harlan Ellison ed. – Dangerous Visions (hb)
  • James Branch Cabell – Something About Eve (hb)
  • Bruce Campbell – If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor (hb)

CDs:

  • Andrew Hill – Mosaic Select
  • Grant Green – Live at Club Mozambique
  • Jack McDuff – The Honeydripper

Managed to finish my bottle of the Cruzan rum without commenting on it. When I first bought the bottle, I got this almost suntan lotion sort of feel to it, that kind of coconut oil-ish smell, although this comes out on the palate with the rum, at times it almost feels designer. Later in the bottle, I wasn’t quite as comfortable with it, or at least it didn’t stand up as well to others that I’ve tried, while being quite respectable.

Anyway, haven’t really blogged in a while, I spent much of the last week with back trouble which sat me in front of my TV most of the time until I was starting to see what I was watching in my dreams. But I did manage to finish some books (and buy lots more at library sales a week or so ago).

I read one Jack McDevitt novel several years ago, and I believe it was called Ancient Shores, it was similar in tone to Sagan’s Contact with different mechanics. It had one of the worst endings I’ve ever read, a really oversentimental conclusion that left me feeling it was a useless exercise. I decided to check McDevitt out again, mostly because his novel Omega won an award, so I figured I’d give the first in the series, Engines of God, a shot and I’m glad I did. McDevitt isn’t the most impressive prose stylist in the world, but he’s pretty good at character development and, of course, cool science fictional ideas. The book also reminded me of Gregory Benford’s 6 book Galactic Center series, or at least the first two books, with humans starting to become aware of a malevolent universe and their potential fate in it. Fortunately, Engines’ plot is much more grounded than Ancient Shores, even wrapping up the plot tightly. I have no idea if McDevitt originally planned sequels to the novel, but it doesn’t feel open-ended. Overall, even more than Benford, the novel has a strong Arthur C. Clarke feel, particularly Rendezvous with Rama, although with a much more archaeological bent. It was more or less a fast read, and I’m now looking forward to checking out the next one in the series, Deepsix. In fact it took a bit of mental vigor to not start it immediately and try finishing my ever-growing pile.

Pale Fire. I’m not sure I’m the one to speak cogently over a novel that is as highly regarded as this one, but it is indeed as brilliant as I’ve heard, a novel that probably needs to be read a few times to absorb what is going on. It purports to be the final poem of a famous poet (Shade) and a commentary on that poem by one of the poet’s cohorts (Kinbote). However it’s not long into the commentary that one becomes aware that not all is what it seems, and that Kinbote has his own agenda in mind. It’s established fairly quickly, Kinbote is hardly a reliable narrator and through his own language you start to really wonder what his role is. Anyway, I’ve said enough, but the commentary twists and turns, often having little to do with the poem, part of what makes one start to distrust what you’re reading. The writing is so inspired there are a number of excellent sections that could be quoted. The book is definitely a keeper.

In fact I found out about Pale Fire through lists of fantastical recommendations spearheaded by Jeff VanderMeer on his blog and his Night Shade discussion board (Pale Fire isn’t what I’d call a genre work by any means, but it does have fantastical elements). Why Should I Cut Your Throat? is a somewhat haphazard collection of criticism and other non fiction that is often entertaining, although having written music reviews for years, I found myself a bit irritated with the snarkiness of the convention reviews. I’ll give VanderMeer the benefit of the doubt that most, if not all, of these were older articles, but I’m getting a little weary of reading reviews by convention or festival attendees that give the impression that the writer and the group of people they went with are somehow more cool, stylish, prettier or more socially adept than other attendees. I’m particularly reminded of VanderMeer’s convention review where his group meets Robert Silverberg – I get the impression from the reading that Silverberg was kind of creepy, when it seemed as possible that he was trying to be friendly or sociable.

Anyway, VanderMeer’s critcism is far more useful than what are admittedly, somewhat causal convention reviews, although it seems to me that there are some shoulder chips, for example the scathing review of Martin Scott’s Thraxas. I’d agree that it didn’t deserve the World Fantasy Award, but I wonder if VanderMeer would have given it a shot had it not. It struck me as something of a harmless, but fun romp.

On the other hand, VanderMeer’s lists turned me on to both Edward Whittemore and Angela Carter, and there’s some wonderful, incisive criticism of both writers in the book. Reading both of those books (and Pale Fire) have gone to inform me that I had been missing some of the greatest literature of last century. Bringing awareness to these great scribes would be worthy of anyone’s life’s work, it’s only to our benefit that VanderMeers seems well on his way to reaching those standards in his own (fictional) work. In fact even though I’ve mentioned what I didn’t like, I’m mostly quoting exceptions, there are a number of reviews (Like Look to Windward or Observatory Mansions) I found quite enlightening. And VanderMeer, like Lucius Shepard in an earlier post, is quite talented at explaining why something didn’t work or how it might have, which is the sort of rare, informed criticism you don’t see enough of.

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Update on Robert Anton Wilson

Posted by Mike on October 16, 2006

http://www.boingboing.net/2006/10/05/note_from_robert_ant.html

Great news at this link. Hope someone has bought him a Dr. Pepper.

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23 in Marketing

Posted by Mike on October 15, 2006

Gotta love it. 🙂

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