Thursday, 23 May 2019

Tricking the Mirror

You can say a lot of things about the way the world is now, but one thing absolutely baffling about it is how things that were once common sense only a decade ago are now nuggets of obscure knowledge. For instance, see plagiarism. No one takes it seriously these days.

For example, there was this video game recently released called YIIK: A Postmodern RPG that has been embroiled in many forms of controversy. First it was from the creator about how games aren't art, despite all creative works by definition being art, aside from his game being special and highly original of course. Then it was referencing the suicide of a real life victim to frame its story around (not in itself wrong, but execution is everything). Now it is about stealing whole passages from author Haruki Murakami for dialogue within the game. You can see the story here.

When confronted with this truth the studio pulled out the "homage" card, because that's the get out of jail free card these days.
“YIIK contains quite a few homages to the writer Haruki Murakami. Our intent was to include little nods to Murakami’s lesser known works as tributes. Within the game, the tributes served a narrative function,” Allanson said.
I'm unconvinced there is a Millennial who knows what an actual homage is. They should, but for some reason have discarded this definition from their minds. A "homage" is clearly not swiping passages of another writer's work and not transforming it to a new form, such as comedy or parody, or attributing the original when doing so. But that aside there is a another quote that gives the game away.
"The idea is, Alex has read After Dark, and his fondness for the novel is seeping into his reality with vocal and physical manifestations calling his attention back to the passages of the book now living in his subconscious. In that context, we thought it would not be in-character for “Proto Woman” to cite that their words hail from Murakami’s novel, since they don’t have the awareness that their words are actually an excerpt from a book."
Modernism subsists entirely on stealing and subsisting on the old ideas of dead men while picking and choosing what you want, and Postmodernism doesn't have the self-awareness to understand this when trying to break free of its shackles. Nonetheless, the book in question came out in 2004 and the game takes place in 1999. So this doesn't cut it, as it can't be true. But I'm sure there's some tortured explanation as to how this still makes sense. After all, (Post)modernism is all about bending reality to make what ever you want true. This is how we end up with those defending things that are obviously wrong such as plagiarism.

But that's not what this post is about. There is another angle to this problem.

Without going into the ethical and moral quagmire about why taking something that isn't yours wholesale from another then attempting to profit of it is bad, I would rather talk about why any creator that does this is never going to amount to anything. This is an interesting topic and I feel compelled to explore it, at least a little.

Plagiarism is the habit of a pretender who has no creative talent. It is the refuge of a man with no imagination, and no interest in cultivating one. It is about a man who sees the results of a real creator's work and wants in on that. In art this is the absolute worst thing you can be, far below simple hacks and even message fiction writers.

The reason I say this is because of how a creator takes in inspiration. They watch a movie like John Wick and decide to write an action story themselves, maybe about a secret assassin organization or about a lone gunman with an attitude or perhaps even about a dog who gets shot. The story might not even have any direct similarities at all aside from genre. In other words, something about the original story tickles them and causes the writer to create a wholly new idea with the original as a starting point. That's how all art works. A plagiarist takes John Wick, calls him Ron Stick, and keeps everything else in the original more or less the same. At that point it isn't even about making art anymore, it's about someone who wants attention. Plagiarists are not in it for the product, but for their own ego.

What this tells me about the above mentioned game is that the creator wanted notoriety, fame, and acclaim, and was more interested in that than he was sitting down and writing a story. Storytelling came second to ego. He was so creatively bankrupt that he needed to take whole passages of someone else's work instead of writing something of his own and didn't care about why. It's lazy and the mark of someone who either has no voice of his own or needs another to speak for him.

Which might speak well of this entire generation.

I've seen many cases of such plagiarism being labelled okay because "everyone does this now" but why aren't we asking why "everyone does this now"? No one was okay with this before.

Why didn't Phantasy Star IV swipe the battle mechanics from Dragon Quest to make it easier to create for them? Why didn't Columbo steal whole plots from Father Brown if it didn't matter? Why didn't Dragon Ball trace whole panels from Astro Boy to save time on a weekly schedule? Why didn't Dee Dee Ramone lift whole choruses and lyrics from Smokey Robinson if it wasn't a big deal? Why didn't any of these older artists need to do what modern ones do without even thinking twice? This is a question none of these people ask. And yet now we even have commentators questioning why plagiarism is so bad. We live in the 21st century, not Year Zero. You are not doing anything others before you have not already considered doing.

In less than a generation we've gone from admiring a perfectly cooked steak of creativity to coveting lukewarm comfort food heated in the microwave. This laziness is why we get so much bad art these days and accept even moderate plagiarism as good enough to spend money on. At some point we went from passively accepting lesser art to needing to spend money on it, and we don't even ask why.

So, then, why?

Much of this has come about by elevating entertainment and artists to modern scripture and scribe status. We put them up there with religions. If these people decide to put it out then it's okay. Who are you to complain? They aren't making art for you, so just shut up and enjoy it or find something else. If you deny this happens then try criticizing the newest Star Wars trailer for any reason at all and watch the reaction. This is not something that would have happened back in the '90s. At some point they became zealots for these products and have no self-reflection as to why they are and why this has changed so much in a short time.

No wonder these people want to get in on the scam. If you will buy anything from them then they can do whatever they want and never suffer for it or learn from their mistakes. Bringing back standards would go a long way to fixing this, but I digress. Fanatics don't want this. They will dance to anything, as an old band once said. It is what it is.

Disposing of those old standards to fashion cover for ourselves to do whatever we want damn the rest is a dead end. It's causing schisms where there shouldn't be. This attitude is going to destroy what little relation we have left to each other and is killing an already weak society.

This isn't a road we want to go down.

Creativity is a craft. There's a reason no writer will ever let you see the first story they ever wrote and that is because they are all terrible and not worth reading. A writer with any semblance of ability will tell you this. No one starts out great, no matter what lie you've been fed. Not just grammar or sentence structure, but creativity itself is something you train and build up with the rest of your skill set. However, it will only improve if you want it to and if you truly believe in what you're doing. A plagiarist skips this step so are missing the key ingredient to being a creator and is therefore never going to amount to anything. It shows their priorities are not where they belong. This is a fundamental error in being a creator.

The reason every writer thinks they're a fraud five seconds away from being found out is because they know where they came from and how easy it is to make a wrong turn and have your work fall apart. This is why they edit so much and spend what little cash they have on editors. A plagiarist that knows nothing of such things will never have that level of awareness about art. They do not understand the craft, and they have inoculated themselves from being able to. A society that doesn't hold their feet to the fire is also partially to blame for this loss of quality control.

In the end these plagiarists are hurting themselves most of all in a bid for adoration and applause, not audience satisfaction or for creating art. They can do this because we no longer have any standards informed by the past but whatever tickles our nostalgic appetites and base desires. We no longer even understand what it means to build on a tradition anymore so we rehash what little we know and subvert it into a corner. There's nowhere to go here.

This constant need to reheat the past with reboots, references, plagiarism, and "modernization" shows a culture that has entirely lost its connection with its roots. No one needed to do this back in the 90s or earlier. This is a modern problem. If it's always Year Zero it can never become Year One, so forever will we be trapped in this limbo or reinventing the wheel but calling it a different name, or perhaps not even bothering to do that much. Without a true connection to the past this is all you can do to avoid building from a foundation and ever reaching greater heights.

Plagiarism severs that relationship totally. When the plagiarist decides to steal wholesale from someone else he has abandoned his quest to connect with the audience via their own voice through their own art. They have instead usurped another's art for either quick fame or because they don't think much of their audience to begin with. Regardless, plagiarism is unbridled disrespect given form. Legal and moral arguments aside this is disgusting behavior.  

At the end it comes down to why one bothers with art at all. Is it because they want to understand their fellow man better, or is it because they want to hide in their own little world away from their neighbors? It is one or the other. This is the question that will decide what, exactly, art means to you and the world around you. This is what will decide what art is for.

If you don't care then you also don't understand why art is so lazy today. It's because commentators like the following from the above article let them get away with this:
"It honestly isn't a big deal. I know how much people here like to shit on bad games and their makers but... Yeah, really not a big deal."
No one would have let this fly even ten years ago. In school it was hammered in to students for decades that plagiarism is the worst thing one can possibly do. How did we go from that to this ambivalence of theft and accepting of mediocrity? How did we just let things get this bad? Are we that spiritually dead?

If allowing an important form of communication like art degrade into outright theft in pursuit of the almighty ego boost is not a "big deal" then it is no wonder it has become such disposable garbage today. This is the world we've let happen.

At what point do we start taking this loss seriously?

A long look in the mirror would do a lot of good. Find out what exactly happened to get us to this point. Then maybe we can do better than this wasteland we have now. Hopefully by tomorrow we will find our way back on track again.

That's the hope, anyway.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Drifting Sounds from the Far Off Place ~ A review of Miles Matrix's "Buena Vista"

Find it Here!

Note: I was given free access to this album for review. As always, it will not affect my final opinion.

This post is a bit late because I wanted to share this with you at the right time, and that is now. For this one we go back to the world of Retrowave. I hope you're ready!

Today I'm going to look at the just released album, Buena Vista by Miles Matrix.

I've made a few posts on Retrowave music, but this is the first time I've managed to review an entire album. This is mostly because reviewing music is not easy as most of it hedges on opinion over soundscapes others might hear somewhat differently than you do. Objective criteria is hard to come by which is proven by how many terrible music critics there are and how few respect them.

But this was a chance to give my opinion on a new work by an independent artist in the best music genre going today. So when I was approached to review this album I jumped at the opportunity. This is new ground for all of us.

At the same time I haven't been all that impressed with the genre this year which has had some artists "modernizing" their sound and becoming more like the junk that plays on the radio in what sound like a bid for mainstream acceptance. It's been a bi of a downer. I'm happy to report that Buena Vista is not that at all.

This is good old fashioned Retrowave of the sort anyone can get into. So please sit back and enjoy, and listen to the fresh sounds for yourself. We're going to look into it together.

First some info on the album:

"Buena Vista" is the first album by Vienna based producer Miles Matrix. It features 8 tracks spanning the whole spectrum of the Synthwave genre. Born from a love for movie soundtracks, nostalgia and synthesizers, "Buena Vista" is 80s infused Retrowave inspired as much by Jean-Michel Jarre, Klaus Schulze and Vangelis – music Miles Matrix had on a cassette as a kid – as by contemporary synthwave icons like Perturbator, Dance with the Dead or Lazerhawk."\ 
"The album title "Buena Vista" has a couple of meanings for Matrix. For one, Buena Vista translates to Schöne Aussicht in german, the plural of which can be a metaphor for bleak prospects. Having grown up in the 80s, Matrix still remembers the feelings of anxiety due to Tchernobyl and the cold war mixed with a hopeful outlook based on technology and science. Miles Matrix translates this emotional melange to eight songs full of darkness and light alike, accompanied by an album artwork showing a view of Saturn from a beach. At the same time, Buena Vista International was a title card he saw on many movies he has fond memories of. "When I see the words 'Buena Vista', it always spawns a film in my head."
As for the artist:
"Miles Matrix, who is an autodidact and has no background in music theory, produced and recorded the album in his livingroom. He initially entered the scene with vocal synthwave, but transitioned to instrumental soon. He had already finished the production on his album when he was struck by the insight that he was not at all happy with the results. "The majority of the tracks neither reflected my progress nor what I wanted to convey with my music", explains Miles Matrix. He scrapped most of the recordedings and started over."

This highlights one of the strengths of this synth movement and that is how it allows an artist to be direct with their audience with both their sounds and their intent. It's very direct and sharp. No pretension, no filler, and an immediate connection with the audience, are three things the genre has going for it.

But how does this album stack up? Let us see for ourselves.

Buena Vista is 8 tracks and 38 minutes long. It's a very sharp record. This one gets to the point with the first track and hooks to the end just as some of my favorite artists in the genre such as Miami Nights 1984 do. Because of the relative brevity of the album I'm going to go track by track through all eight and contrast what Matrix intended against what I hear, and make my general impressions known.

So let us dive in to some good old fashioned Retrowave! It's been a spell.

1. Night Striker [Album Version] (4:10)
"A Youtube commenter on Luigi Donatello's channel described this song as "i turn this on in my headphones when i'm hunting poison dart frogs in the rain forest", and while I thought more of car chases through neon-lit Los Angeles, I think his description is picture perfect."

Being that I'm a writer of action adventure stories, the first thing I thought of with this one was a vigilante stalking the streets of some post-apocalyptic city. The creeping synth and the desolate soundscape reminds me of a lone hero fighting for what little there is left that he can fight for. For four minutes the build up ends with the hero walking away to the next fight.

It's a very direct and punchy number, perfect for starting an album or inclusion on a compilation.

This one highlights the reasons I enjoy the genre. It is how these soundscapes can so inspire the listener in different ways and remain accessible to a newcomer to plug into.

2. Starpilot (4:26)
"I like to imagine many of my songs as short stories with the music as their soundtrack. "Starpilot" for me is a campy sci-fi opera, think Pirates of the Carribean, but somewhere in space."

It reminds me a lot of both a Wolf & Raven track and old NES games such as Blaster Master. The percussion sounds like the rattling of tank treads and the spiking swirling synth definitely drives like a heroic charge into the unknown. I could hear this playing in an old Sega Genesis games such as Granada. Get out of the way, or get blasted and crushed!

I really do enjoy the space synth stuff, but so rarely are the songs ever driving and action packed. There is usually more build up and stalling than payoff by the end. It was good to hear one nail that feel in a compact nugget such as this.

3. Super Getaway Driver: Miami (4:42)
"The song title speaks for itself – it's the soundtrack for a heist involving muscle cars. I am a massive fan of motorsports and one of my hopes is that maybe one day, Formula One pilots like Esteban Ocon or Mick Schumacher will listen to my music."

There is no doubt that this is speed music. This sounds exactly like a race against time versus some creeping enemy right on your tail which is ready to do you in. The build raises tension throughout with tightened percussion and layers of competing synth-lines to produce that great effect of time running out.

The track ends almost abruptly, making the listener wonder if the race was won or not. It's not a loud piece overall, but it nails the sense of urgency perfectly. This is the Outrun style through and through.

4. Adventure Club (5:37)
"Probably the most personal song on the album and maybe my favorite as well: When I was a kid, my dad used to take us for adventures and explorations in the woods behind our house. He even printed explorers certificates when we returned home. In the forest there were craters from World War II bombs, but in our imagination we had discovered dinosaur graves."

I suppose the standard comparison to a track like this these days would be to Stranger Things, but the overall feel reminds me more of a Goonies sequel if it took place in an ancient abandoned city instead of under a small town. The swirling synth and the thumping bass emphasize exploration while the song itself digs deep to reveal to new sounds under the surface with every moment. It's adventure, after all!

This is probably the best written song on the album, and it earns every second of its length. Songs about adventure are uncommon enough, never mind ones that simulate well it with sounds. That makes this one a gem.

5. You Did Good, Kid (6:33)
"This song features samples from an old science fiction movie called "Assignment: Outerspace" and the samples set the tone for this atmospheric and slow piece. It is a very melancholic song and I can easily imagine it being the score for a tragic twist in a story."

The feeling I get from this track, paired with the title, is the end of a long journey where the protagonist of the piece has suffered a fatal wound and the song replays how he ended up in this state. It's a slow burn, but engaging. The bluesy sound of the background synths add to this feeling tremendously.

As it builds to a crescendo the fallen makes his last move and uses his last breath of life to deliver the final blow and save his allies from a fate worse than his. He succeeds and the track ends as he drifts off to meet his maker. It's a very dark piece, but very powerful.

This is my favorite track on the album.

6. Stay A While, Stay Forever! (4:17)
"One of two vocal synthwave songs on the album, this track is dedicated to one of my best mates, M. He died a couple of years back in a bike accident, but when I was a kid, we spent nights on end playing video games together. One of my fondest memories is completing Secret of Mana on the Super Nintendo as a team."

Even knowing the background of this track doesn't make it feel any less like a song you would hear on alternative radio back when that meant something. It's a very weird piece, and eerie, but it has a very Gothic feel at the same time.

Imagining a team storming Dracula's castle and you might have a perfect encapsulation of what listening to this one is like. Being one of two tracks with vocals helps this mood, too.

7. Main Force Patrol (3:15)
"While producing the album I rewatched all Mad Max movies. The Road Warrior is still my favorite, but I was blown away by the raw energy of the first film, and a title taken from it fitted perfectly to the by far most punk rock track on the album."

The first thing I thought of was DOOM. An invasion takes place and a force equal in intensity, if not number, must fight to repel it. Being the shortest and punchiest track on the album it lends itself well to the interpretation.

Clashing and harsh synth with plenty of speed lends in quite a bit of power and muscle. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one I could most easily hear during a shootout scene in a Chuck Norris movie. It is more than intense enough.

8. Enemy Mine (4:40)
"The lyrics of course can be applied to any relationship. But I wrote this song last year during a phase in which it wasn't clear whether we would be able to keep our beloved dog, a rescued street dog with severe trauma and behavioral disorders. It was a tough period which sent both my girlfriend and myself spiralling from sadness, but ultimately we were able to keep the dog and carry on together. It was only in hindsight that I realized the song is basically about our dog. The title is borrowed from an 80s science fiction film I liked a lot."

The final track actually feels like an ending credit song to a movie where only the main character made it out alive. The vocals hiding in the back of the mix are eerie but the sound of the lonely high pitched synths and driving backing track specifies loneliness above all. It definitely matches the tone of the album and the title.

Its a good piece to end the album on, but it's not quite up there with my personal favorite ending pieces in the genre such as The End of Summer by Megahammer, Take Me Home by Mega Drive, or Hopeless Romantic by FM Attack. The atmosphere matches as does the structure for a closer. It just needed a bit more power to hit that level to reach home, but it still remains a solid end to a very good album.

As a whole Buena Vista is exactly what I look for in the genre. It has varied moods, sounds, and tones, that all coalesce into a unified sound of synth, style, and emotion. 8 tracks of no filler and plenty of hooks to take you to a land of escapism and distant alien sights is exactly what you get here. There isn't much else you could want.

Most of my problem with modern music comes from how empty it has become. Endlessly sappy songs about one night stands and sexual obsession gets old. Repeating sounds that were tired when they were first cranked out back in 1998 doubly so. One of the reasons movements such as these have scratched an itch so well is how much genuine passion and excitement the artists and listeners have for this style that has taken an abandoned torch and forged ahead into new territory with it, burning the cobwebs and overgrowth away in the process.

I was a little worried for the genre at year's start with some appeals to the mainstream that reeked of scrap begging. But with summer on the way I am reminded that the heart of the genre beats loudest when it is brightest and hottest, and this album is a good example as to why. There is still plenty of gas left in the tank.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the sounds of summer. They're not going anywhere anytime soon, and I am grateful for that.

You can find Buena Vista on Soundcloud here and on Bandcamp here.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

The Old Normal & Weird Fiction

Given that the first issue of Dimension Bucket Magazine is finally available in print I thought I would use this chance to both advertise for it and to make a little post based on the story I wrote for inclusion in its pages.

No, this isn't going to be a review post. That would be awkward. I'm not comfortable reviewing things my work appears in for many reasons, but I can tell you that the magazine features many different authors that are quite good at what they do and stories you won't read coming from the cobweb-caked shelves of Oldpub stores. You can even find the issue digitally here.

I'm going to be talking about the weird and the normal.

My story in the issue is called Endless Nights in Villain City and is ostensibly about a selfish loner who embraces his inner magic to become, as Boomer parents like to say, true to himself and his inner light. In other words, it stars a villain. The story is incredibly violent, vicious, and dark, but I thought it was quite Superversive in the end. I thought the ending quite uplifting. However, two different Superversive writers told me it in fact was not Superversive in the slightest, so who am I to say? You can be the judge of that and let me know. I'd be glad to hear.

But the story highlights the difference between good and evil with the latter not being shown as ideal. Apparently this is weird and not the norm. Well, it is to me.

The more I've been writing over the years the more I am aware of how weird fiction can be. I've been writing in a PulpRev mindset since 2017 and as I write I'm starting to understand what I write might not be as straightforward as how others see it. What I think is normal is actually quite strange. For one I was told by someones that the first short story I sold, Someone is Aiming for You, was too scary. I didn't catch that when writing it. For another example, what I thought was the most direct story I ever wrote, Lucky Spider's Last Stand, was described as such:
"It's the tale of a gangster who was his boss' right hand. The boss is dead, there's a legit, no-shit superhero who is immune to bullets called "A Crusader" (nice touch btw), and Lucky Spider has to fight this superhero with a healing factor in a god damned sword fight."
Special thanks to Jim Fear for the kind review.

The more I write the more bizarre it appears to get. I recently realized that I don't write superheroes, but pulp heroes. One would have to be familiar with their differences (law vs. justice, the permanent against the temporal, etc.) to understand the schism, but there is absolutely a gap. Each story I have written in my "magic superhero" series has not been like those in the comic books I grew up on and has shifted into something far different. What was originally a battle of the supernatural between two opposing forces (powers and magic) somehow became a playground for nutty ideas about God, justice, alienation, and death. I'm not sure where it's going to eventually end up, but I think after the next story I'm working on I will move them to novels instead. There is more to tell than what I can scratch out with a handful of short stories.

But it also kicks off a big difference between what I think works between the pulp hero and the post-pulp hero, and that is in explaining too much. The #1 writing problem I've picked up today for anyone who writes and action adventure story is their constant need to explain everything in overbearing detail. Others have picked up on this, too.

I suppose my take on this is strange because of how I write characters. When I write a story it is as if a window to another world is forming in my head and each draft and editing pass goes towards cleaning the glass so that it can be fully grasped. This means the characters are already formed with everything else which means they already have a history coming into what I am writing. They are prepackaged with one when they come into existence. I know it, and so do they.

But the reader doesn't need to know that. Origin stories have quick become a plague on modern writing. The worst ones damage the imagination, even the better ones strip away mystique.

As far as the reader knows the characters lived normal lives in the world in question up to the point the story started. Just as all weird tales, it is normal until it isn't anymore. This adds weight to the weirdness surrounding the plot and action and allows the audience to ease into it at the same time as the characters do. The audience are normal people and that is how they relate to the hero. If the reader is learning about whatever the trouble is with the main character then there is a better chance for a connection. This should be the goal of all stories.

In a book the main character should have no intense, tragic background before the story starts. No heavy traumas the audience doesn't know about, no excuses for why they are doing what they are doing, and no complex relationship with the antagonist that the audience isn't informed of until the author deems it right. I say this because the place you start your story from should be the place where the audience can be connected to it. The writer's job is to let the reader in, not to lead them around by a leash and tell them where they are allowed to put their investment. The main character should not be the one throwing curve-balls at the audience, they should always be on the same side in whatever craziness occurs.

You might be wondering about other things. Literary works are all about trauma drama, so it works there. But we aren't talking about those.

Stories like Trigun or Cowboy Bebop feature a back story for the main character, seemingly breaking the rule. But it must be taken to account how it does so. When that background is in focus, they are not the focal point character in the story. In Trigun when Vash's history is brought up we see it from another character's perspective every single time, and when it is focused on Vash it is never about that side of it. In Cowboy Bebop it is the same whenever one of the main characters has their past focused on. The perspective shifts to the most normal character in the situation. This is much easier to do with visual art forms than written ones.

In short stories and novels the writer has to use a different tool-set.

In Grey Cat Blues, Two Tone is the main character. He is a reformed punk though the audience is never told the exact reason why as it is not relevant to the story being told. However, at the point the story starts he is the anchor for the readers and learns the craziness occurring with them. On page one he is the normal the readers need for the weird that is about to happen and they need to connect with him. To do this he cannot be a broken character or else it dilutes this connection, and being that he is the only viewpoint character he needs to retain his normality in the weirdness.

That is the key to true weird fiction. The normal and moral is the starting point and the weirdness that closes in from the outside is the true antagonist. If the norm is as stained as the weird then there is no power in victory over it. The entire battle between them blurs into grey paste.

In Lucky Spider's Last Stand, my protagonist is a villain and the weirdness comes in to give him a moral battle with the one before him. To keep it focused I could not give any excuses for him being a villain to soften his character. He had to confront his own choices in a way the audience could get right off the bat. It is the same with Endless Nights in Villain City. The weirdness is what allows the villain protagonist to be who he wants to be and its the hero antagonist that has to face the weirdness caused by his choices. I suppose you can consider these stories subversive, but all they do is show typical hero stories from another angle. At no point is evil glorified or good seen as wrong.

What I'm getting at is that something in a story has to be nailed down in normality, and the most obvious thing is the protagonist, the good guy. This is what a "relatable" character should be. This is the key to weird fiction and what makes it so digestible no matter how disturbing or out there the story might get. The good guy needs to represent normality. Otherwise you just have a bunch of events randomly happening to people in a world you don't care about. If you end up there, what is the point of it? Why even bother?

That's a long way to say that one of the things I have gotten more appreciation for since I started down this pulp revolution path is what weird really is. Since I began reading authors I had never heard of and stories long since buried by gatekeepers that had no right to gatekeep I began to see why things were changed. And it isn't just the old works. The stories I reviewed in my previous post all reclaimed the old normal just as well as the pulps did. They were stories focused on the border between the normal and the abnormal with the former being seen as the way it should be--the natural state of things. Good is good and evil is evil and both should be pointed out for what they are for both the characters and the audience.

The weird is a tool to highlight the normal, whether by cautionary tale, heroic adventure, or straight up romance. This is something the dinosaurs of the Oldpub have forgotten with their mandatory genre segregation and 400 page cookie-cutter formulas. Truth is weird, it's not as stale as the creative class with their sensitivity readers and dry workshops have made it today.

I plan on writing more stories to highlight this bizarre reality, and I hope to read more stories from others doing the same. I hope you will join me.

The revolution is still on. No sleep until victory!

Thursday, 2 May 2019

The Big Book Blowout!

Which is why I take my time going through things

Have you ever gotten so off track that you find it embarrassing? 2018 for me was the year of distractions and as a consequence I didn't do quite enough when it comes to reviewing newer books. I read, but it was mostly older stuff. It is good to keep in contact with the old ways, but newer authors deserve the reading time, too. This is an attempt to make it up here. Today's post is an overlong set of reviews. So if you're looking for a good book to read then you've come to the right place.

Of course many of these works are Pulp Revolution being that I have been in contact with everyone of them before and that I know they are aware of what the movement is. It's also been about three years since the movement got going (as of now, anyway) so we should keep up with how it is progressing.

That said, there isn't really a theme other than I promised these reviews a while back but fell behind in producing them. So here they are! This post is meant to bring me up to date as best as possible and to hopefully spread the word about some good books. So everyone wins. The books I will talk about today are Reptilian Wanderer, A Traitor to Dreams, Going Native & Other Stories, and The Ophian Rising. That is quite the selection.

I've wanted to get these out for a while now so I stored them up in this one mega-post. I hope you are ready for a lot of reading because that is how much I had to do just to make these reviews reality.

*Note: I have met these authors before, and some of them gave me copies of these works to read. As usual it won't have any bearing on my reviews but I figure it is worth mentioning.

Find it Here

The first book to talk about is A Traitor to Dreams by Alexander Hellene, his first published novel. This is an Isekai fantasy story of the old sort. IE it's actually worth your time to read.

Elpida Kallistos is in her late-30s and is unable to establish a lasting relationship. Now, as doubt about the future creeps in on her, she begins to second guess her life choices. Instead of dealing with the problem beating her over the head, she finds herself an out. The Dream Trashcan! A new product for dealing with unwanted issues, it can give the user the sleep they desire and remove unpleasant thoughts. So Elpida uses it to remove her budding desire to build a family. All seems well at first, but did she make a mistake?

This is genre fiction, so yes.

She finds herself trapped in a strange dream world that looks suspiciously like ancient Greece. Crazy monsters from the myths, landmarks, and a strange sky all greet her at once. At the same time she is joined by a winged muscular man with the personality of a boy and wise-cracking bird who are not what they seem at first. Eventually the group is pulled into an adventure of creepy horrors, computerized knights, monsters and beasts, and some existential dread.

And that's just to begin with. There is far more to mention that I won't spoil here. Nonetheless, it is a quest for Elpida to find her way out again. But things will never be the same again.

This book is hard to peg. There are elements of Science Fiction with the creation of a device such as the Dream Trashcan, Elpida's desire also point to a sort of character piece as well. I could also mention the fantastical and horror elements, but I'll leave those surprises for those willing to dive into the book for themselves. Just talking about them is spoiler central. I would classify this story as pure weird fiction, the type that would have been serialized in a modern day edition of Weird Tales, if one existed, and still remembered its roots. The story manages to get stranger and stranger as it goes but it never loses its grounding as an adventure story.

It also manages to be a rare feat in that it stars an at-first unlikable main character who learns and grows as the story goes on into being someone you like hanging around with by the end. In an age where rotten characters are portrayed as ideal this is refreshing. There are other characters both good and bad that fit this mold, but not one of them is actively annoying or grating. In fact, the varied characters are probably the strongest part of the book.

If I had a complaint it is that some scenes stretch on for a good while past when a problem should be solved, though that might be a particularity of mine. Nonetheless, things are still happening which is usually not the case with modern Oldpub books these days. As long as things are happening on the page the author is doing their job.

I highly recommend this book for weird fiction fans and anyone who wants an example of how to modernize the old formula without ruining its mystique. It works great here and I eagerly await what Mr. Hellene has waiting for us next.

Find it Here

More weirdness!

Reptilian Wanderer by Dominika Lein is a novella about a strange spacecraft full of lizard people who appear lost at space without any clear direction and are very far from home. Ray wakes up from slumber with a bit of scrambled brain amnesia and is being trained to rejoin his brothers and re-learn how everything in the ship works. However, something is not quite right and he begins to think and remember things no one else who is reborn does. This slowly ends up building to an ending where everything around them is not what it seems and their quest turns out to be more important than any of them realize.

Along the way is romance, action, and wonder, the three keys to a good old pulp romp. The pulp revolution has attracted many authors with their own distinctive tastes, but so far of the ones I've read they all appear to value those three aspects of fiction above all else. This one is no exception.

For a shorter book Reptilian Wanderer has a slow build, which works to its favor. There's no padding and the suspense delivers its point without being blunted by being excruciatingly stretched like so many similar sff books these days to meet a corporate approved page count. I say "similar" but I only mean in their attempt to world build: most Oldpub books care more about aesthetics or background info that the reader finds trivial or gets in the way of the main plot. They are more impressed with themselves than they are the story. Here the background is very important for the plot but it also enhances the atmosphere as distinctly alien and the characters as both like us humans and different from us. We can understand them as far as we should be able to. You're learning about this spacecraft and its small society at the same time the story relies on it to slowly unfurl what is going on behind the scenes. By the end you will almost feel as if you are a part of the group and hate to see them go.

One of the aspects of the pulp revolution I have enjoyed is the shorter and sharper books that have come out of it to really emphasize how much unnecessary fat modern novels have and how much a good writer can really pack into a work under 300 pages if they really want to. Reptilian Wanderer would not feel out of step coming from C. L. Moore, Jack Vance, or even Roger Zelazny, and reads as the kind of book that would feel impossible coming out even five years ago. In fact, there is no chance a major publisher would touch this, and that's a shame.

Reptilian Wanderer is weird, sharp, distinct, and has a heart to it that I haven't read from an Oldpub book in a long time. You would be remiss skipping this one.

I eagerly await the next piece the author puts out. Surely even better works await than even this.

Find it Here

If you thought we were done with the weird stuff then you thought wrong.

This book is the most recent addition to this list, a short story collection by yet another writer of weird fiction (I think I might have a problem) this time it is Going Native & Other Stories by J. Manfred Weichsel. You might have recalled that I reviewed the title story during a review of a Cirsova issue. To refresh your memory it was an PSA against having casual sex with aliens. Yes, really. The story was utterly bizarre and horrifying but also funny at the same time, which is a hard trick to pull off. So when I was given the chance to read and review this collection of six stories including said weird tale I jumped at it.

After the clever title story is the first contact tale of "The Funniest Story Ever Told" about aliens that land on Earth and have a particularly odd effect on those who glance at their faces. In order to solve this problem and prevent the aliens from leaving Earth behind forever, a weird yet believable idea begins to be formed. This leads to an escalation of events leading up to an ending that does its title justice. Once again this is another humorous story with a great ending that will leave you smiling but also maybe a bit horrified.

Next is "Complicit in Their Bondage" about a soldier lost in the desert after a battle with the Taliban. Soon he is attacked by some monsters and meets a crazy broad with a thick British accent. He gets taken to a place where even stranger creatures are and certain people are held in a zoo. I'm not certain I can explain this one without giving the whole thing away, but it reminds me a bit of a certain horror story I read in a collection I reviewed a little while back. Except this one is less predictable with an ending I didn't see coming a mile away.

"The Garden of Prince Shi-Wiwi" is another curve-ball of a bit of an alien meets oriental yarn about plant monsters grown by the titular character. The story is really about a question of ethics and if they are as universal as we consider them here on Earth. It's a shorter piece but a good pace breaker and keeping with the weird theme. It also has another quite horrifying ending.

After that is "Alter Ego", by far the longest story in the collection and probably my favorite. A mental patient finds himself descending into a deeper sort of madness from the confines of the hospital. The main character goes on a strange journey about identity and what it means to be who you are. Oh, and his doctor is a Satanist in a pact with a demon that has a sexual urge to be with dudes. It brings a whole new meaning to the term "trap" and gives us the definitive answer as to their sexual preferences. This story reminded me of something you would read out of a later day Weird Tales issue considering how bizarre it is and how many turns it takes, although it s a bit more explicit. I was hooked until the end trying to figure out which character was where and doing what. I'm sure the author had fun trying to make as many weird turns as he could, and it pays off.

Finally we end on "We Might Not Have Fire, But We Sure As Hell Have Fury", and what a final story it is! A homeless Vietnam veteran is hired for a special job. At first this story starts out like a Cannon action movie might before it gets bizarre. Then it becomes Isekai, but good Isekai. Explaining where the protagonist ends up would involve quite a bit of spoiling but suffice to say that Burroughs, Kline, and Vance, would be proud. You're going to get your action and you're going to like it. The final speech at the end is a good place to leave the collection off, too.

This collection features six stories, all of which are remarkably strong pieces and very different from each other. The only similarities are that they are all weird tales, proving that genre really is more than aesthetic and has its own voice. If you are in a mood to read new pulp stories with the beating heart of the old tales then this collection is for you.

It doesn't get much weirder than this one.

Find it Here

Or does it?

Finally, here is a book I've been meaning to get to for far too long. This is The Ophian Rising, the final entry in Brian Niemeier's Soul Cycle quartet and since I've reviewed every entry in it so far I wanted to cover the final one. It only stands to reason that I should finish what I started.

I'm at a bit of a loss to explain this book without spoiling the others. It's not so much because it's the last book in a series and that it is unavoidable but because this story could standalone without them. However, I have read the other three so I will keep it brief.

There is a place much like Hell where the dead are trapped in endless torment. However, it is not like the cartoonish fire and brimstone Hell you see in old Bugs Bunny shorts or in equally silly online arguments with atheists but one where the world is much like ours with a fantasy and science fiction bent. "Magic" exists in so much that manipulation of the natural world is possible via different methods and systems that are, mercifully, not explained in detail. More than that death and rebirth is a prison where souls remained trapped in this hell world and demonic beings roam free to rule over and torment the masses. This is where the Soul Cycle series takes place.

Through the events of the last three books it has been learned that this world is not the real Hell and these demons playing gods are power hungry monsters looking to rule over this chaos for their own gain. It is an endless cycle of death and despair. But there is a bit of hope. There is escape from this hell, a crack in the abyss that points to something a fair bit different than the world the main characters know. By the end of the third book the good guys have finally discovered this and decide to share it with those trapped in the endless cycle. That is where we were left off. In this final entry many years have passed but it looks as things haven't changed all that much.

Or have they?

In many ways this book is an epilogue to the first three as the third entry wrapped up a lot of character arcs. This one closes off the final few and adds a couple more to be sure. However, it does confirm a theory I had about the universe since the first book in regards to what this place really is and lets you know why it has been such a struggle to turn the hell around. By the end of the story the pieces come together and it leaves you with the feeling that Good will eventually win over the Evil this place is infected with. It will not be easy, but it will happen. Considering how much carnage and destruction these books have this says a lot that such a positive takeaway can be gathered from only a single plot turn..

And of course, being that this is an action adventure story I am happy to report the author has them both in spades here. Even though we have seen this universe four times now I never get sick of exploding buildings, demonic pits, eerie magic, exotic monsters, and trippy spacecrafts. Every event is punctuated with an action set piece that would leave Chuck Norris giving a solemn nod, and the story moves briskly from intrigue and reveal to yet another escalation in stakes without breaking a sweat. Of all four books this one has the best flow.

One thing the author should be praised with doing is going in the opposite direction of epic fantasy and science fiction writers when it comes to the length. Each book in the Soul Cycle is sharper and quicker than the last with this entry being the shortest and sharpest. Rowling would have learned well from this series.

But the key to the success of this series is the wonder. Niemeier doesn't explain everything. He doesn't tie everything up in a neat bow. The story ends when the threat has been defeated and the main character arc has ended. There are questions that haven't been answered and there are events that still must play out. Not everything is shoveled out, but the story has still ended.

This is a good thing.

This is what brings the Soul Cycle from being just another fantasy series that explains everything for my feeble brain so I can forget all about it five minutes after reading to being an adventure that keeps me thinking about possibilities and events that might play out after the last page has been turned. It sticks because it leaves you with questions about the world you will want to figure out for yourself.

It's a feeling a try to get across in my stories, and Niemeier has done it here and made it look so very easy. As a writer I admire what he has done here, but as a reader I am even more pleased.

This usage of wonder has successfully made the Soul Cycle one of the best series I've read in recent memory. If you haven't jumped in by now then what are you waiting for? Get going! You won't read anything else like it today.

In fact, this wonder is the best part of everything reviewed in this post. None of these stories had to suck the life out of by giving my imagination training wheels like I had a slow brain. No endless back stories to explain why every bad action can be explained away or over-focused explanations on why a spaceship can fly through warp speed or an in-depth explanation on why monsters are what they are and how humans are to blame for everything. These stories gave me a fantastical adventure and let me have my fun and speculations, along the way.

It shouldn't be forgotten how important that is for readers. Art is communication, not preaching.

This is what stories are for. You want to get taken on a journey to a new world where anything is possible and the good wins out in the end. For that I do hope you check out all the above.

And I also hope I won't fall so far behind again.

See you next time for when I hopefully get back on track.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Signal Boost ~ "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" + Hardcover Omnibus by Leigh Brackett & Cirsova

Queen of the Martian Catacombs is Here.
The Stark Omnibus is Here.

Out today is a very special project from friend of the blog, and one of the favorite current running magazines of mine, Cirsova. No, this isn't another issue though those are still on the way.

These are the first of the three original Eric Stark pulp novels written by Leigh Brackett, one of the inspirations behind Star Wars and one of the greatest authors of the pulp era. The first, Queen of the Martian Catacombs, is out today in both e-book and physical forms, as well as the hardcover omnibus that houses all three stories in one package. Both include new illustrations by StarTwo, but the omnibus features even more art and an appendix on top of it. Each edition has an introduction from someone who knows more than a little about the pulp era. The first one is by the Pulp Archivist, Nathan Housley.

The other two books will be released standalone in the next two months if that's how you prefer them. Their covers are just as bright and exciting as the first.

The three pulp novels originally ran in Planet Stories in the late '40s and early '50s, the last of the Golden Age magazines. Starring a man with skin so black he might be sunburned to Hell and back, Eric John Stark, Brackett introduced her own touch to the classic pulp hero that the modern world has been trying to destroy ever since.

If you're curious about these old pulp tales and want to get your feet wet there are few better places to start than here.

The description of Queen of the Martian Catacombs is as follows:

Trouble is brewing on Mars... With civil war about to erupt, Eric John Stark has been sent to investigate an apocalyptic warlord recruiting mercenaries. More disturbing than the promise of a full scale war to unify the Martian city states is the claim that Delgaun's ally, Kynon of Shun, has at his disposal ancient sorceries that grant him powers of life and death. 
When Kynon's mistress, the beautiful Berild, takes an interest in Stark, the mercenary swordsman finds himself caught in a web of lies, betrayal, and evil magic. Can Stark unravel the mysteries of the lost Martian tribe and pull Mars back from the brink of war? The mysterious Berild is prepared to kill to keep the secret buried in the deserts of Mars--or offer it up on a plate to Stark if he will help her conquer the Red Planet! 
An all-new, fully-illustrated edition of Leigh Brackett's classic Sword & Planet adventure!
All that in a 200 page paperback.

Cirsova really should be commended for this job of keeping the classics in print that the mainstream publishers have been trying to bury for decades. There is so much material out there begging for readers that have given up on the traditional book market with publishers such as Tor and Baen chasing smaller and smaller audiences with their more niche styles and degrading quality of their covers. That it took an up and coming publisher to do these stories justice is a sad reminder of the state of the industry, though it is good for smaller pubs such as Cirsova. With Star Wars movies still releasing and the lies about women representation in the pulp era it says something that these tales are still being hidden from you.

As I've previously said, there are many pulp era authors that have works out of print that have no business having them out of print. From Brackett, to Otis Adelbert Kline, to Ross Rocklynne, to Ray Cummings, to . . . well, to this day there are novels that ran in Weird Tales and Astounding Stories that have still never been compiled or re-released. The Campbellians dropped the ball hard on archiving their predecessors works and the Futurians deliberately set out to bury them.

God bless those such as Cirsova, Armchair Fiction, and DMR Books for keeping them in print. Someone has to do it, and thankfully they have stepped up to the challenge.

So if you're looking for a good pulp yarn you might want to keep your eye on this series. Brackett is one of the best and this edition gives her the justice she deserves.

And for those who want more pulp revolution I have a post coming up this week that should make you happy. It's been some time coming!

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Giant Robot ~ A Review of Xabungle

Giant robots are synonymous with two things these days. It was once more, but the genre has really flat-lined as of late.

The first thing the genre is known for is the military science fiction story where those monstrosities replace tanks and another where they are glorified superheroes or ripped straight from the pages of some pulp magazine and gussied up to look pretty. In Japan they even have terms such as Real Robot to indicate the former and Super Robot to represent the latter. Those in the west, as far as I've seen, are completely incapable of the second form. That said, I'm not going to be talking about it today either. The anime I'm taking a look at today is a very loose entry in the "Real Robot" subgenre to the point that it blurs the lines.

Xabungle is a bit of an anomaly for mecha and giant robot series for many reasons, and I'd like to talk about why.

First, it should be noted that the series was spearheaded by the man who more or less invented the subgenre in Japan, Yoshiyuki Tomino, the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam. He started in the industry like so many others of the time did under Osamu Tezuka's Musha Productions. As a storyboard artist and screenplay writer for Astro Boy in 1963 he then moved to Sunrise where he started his long career of first putting interesting twists on Super Robot series and eventually helping to change the medium. However, unlike say Hideaki Anno (creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion) Tomino never stopped even after creating the series that influenced so much of his genre. In fact he is still creating today.

After creating Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979, he made the existential Space Runaway Ideon (over a decade before Evangelion), science fantasy Aura Battler Dunbine, and the overlooked Heavy Metal L-Gaim. This doesn't go into the plentiful Gundam sequels and unrelated series he made. It is a long career. But nothing he made is as weird as Xabungle from back in 1982.

Xabungle stars a young man named Jiron Amos wandering the desert planet of Zora alone. His parents have been killed and he's trying to find their murderer. However on this planet, Civilians: those who live in the desert, are forgiven their crimes after three days and cannot be prosecuted. So says those who live in domes and rule over Zora known as the Innocent. This means Jiron is the one breaking the law and is in the wrong. He comes across a bandit group named the Sand Rats and through their help ends up a pilot of a mecha called Xabungle and tied up with the trading merchant fleet that owns it. Hijinks soon ensue, but what does it all have to do with the killer Jiron is seeking? Well, more than you might think.

Despite this set up, which is different enough for mecha from the time (and even earlier, honestly) there are a few things that put Xabungle apart from the others. For one, most mecha series are named after the lead giant robot the main character pilots which is unique and adapted especially for the lead. This is true for both the Real Robot and Super Robot subgenres. In Xabungle, the titular mecha is not the only robot Jiron pilots and is only one piece of the Iron Gear's (the giant transforming merchant flagship) fleet. The title more matches the tone of the series ("The Bungle") that of which is an action comedy. That's right, this isn't a serious drama. But it isn't a farce, either.

The art style in reaction is more cartoony and expressive than Gundam or even Super Robot shows. Just as Matt Groening called The Simpsons "rubber-band reality" where the universe bends for a joke before snapping back for serious moments, Xabungle did it nearly a decade before he did. This isn't the typical modern weeb humor of perverted harem shenanigans, either, but full on pratfalls, slapstick, and character humor brought about through action. It's a lighter story for this, but not a goof. On top of this, Xabungle has the lowest death count of any Yoshiyuki Tomino series. For a man known for character death, this is saying a lot.

For why this is so bizarre you would have to understand the tone of mecha at the time. It was then about the horrors of war and how senseless it can be where it was once about heroes fighting villains. Tomino changed a lot of what mecha was known for even before he made Gundam with shows such as Zambot 3. Super Robots were no longer cool.

Xabungle is a throwback, not to Super Robots but to old adventure anime. Jiron is the manly hotblooded wandering gunslinger (there are gun battles in the series) protagonist after the sinister assassin of his parents. The series starts as a revenge story, but unlike a story such as GunXSword which forsakes all character development along the way just to kill the villain, Jiron's goal changes as he does throughout events into a loyal member of the traders who will do anything to correct injustices along the way to his goal. It's an adventure series where the mechs are merely a part of the arsenal and world. Not even like in a real robot show, in Xabungle most of the action might take place on foot. It might be a fistfight or a gun battle. The mecha are not the focus of the series, even though that was undoubtedly what Sunrise would have preferred.

There are good and bad guys in Xabungle, and Tomino is nothing if not skilled at portraying confrontations between rivals. There is one in particular around episode 20 that ramps up through mecha fights and shootouts as a giant base blows up around them. You want hotblooded fights? Well, you get them here.

And while this is a comedy at many times the core story isn't played for laughs. As said earlier the comedy comes from jokes and characters in goofy situations they sometimes get in. There are a handful of fourth wall breaks, but nothing as obnoxious or lazy as you would get today. The main plot, Jiron's quest for revenge, and the overall world are taken seriously. There's no winking in those aspects. Characters still die, despite what some people might tell you about this series, and the violence has consequences. But it is not as hard and gritty as the usual Tomino romp. It is more like the western adventure it models itself after.

The opening even screams old school, and most likely did so even at the time.

The Opening Theme

So why am I reviewing Xabungle? It's not the most well known mecha. It's not Tomino's most famous series, heck it is probably not in the top 5 for most. I'm not even certain modern anime watchers even know it exists.

Probably because this, like Zillion which I previously reviewed, is not a series that could get made now. Jiron is a hero Japan doesn't do so much these days: an unapologetic red-blooded male that uses his fists to seize justice from the closing jaws of villainy, who will not stay down, who is a great bro, who loves women and children, and who isn't afraid of anything that threatens the lives of others. The comedy is not so much "anime" comedy that you would know of today. It's much closer to old black and white slapstick that uses its animation to amplify the effect. The story features a large cast of characters that each play their part and are never forgotten or tossed to the side for convenience's sake. And despite this being partially a comedy they are far less trope-ish than what you would see in a modern anime today.

It is a bit strange that no one tried to bring it over here back in the day, though I suppose the 65 episode syndication rule might have been a factor. There's nothing heavy that the usual censorship job wouldn't do to allow it to air. At the same time I'm not sure how well it would have gone over had it been released here at the time. Xabungle is not Macross, Gundam, or even Voltron. Fans of those properties would have been stupefied by its existence.

There are a few problems with the show one could bring up. This isn't surprising, but the animation on a 50 episode weekly show from 1982 isn't exactly the strongest. At the same time 50 episodes, while it doesn't mean as much padding as you would think, do feature some repetitive plot moments that are tolerable because as a director Tomino knows how to keep it engaging and because he wrings out more comedic moments from the story. Finally, if you like your giant robot series 100% stoic and stone-faced you probably will not appreciate what the series does here.

For anyone else who doesn't mind their anime a few decades old with visible wrinkles you will find a series that is unlike most anything else out there. Even today it is wholly unique.

I watched Xabungle via Maiden Japan's recent SD-Blu Ray release of the series. It is DVD quality so you will see dirt and other artifacts on the picture. Not as if it matters much. Xabungle's animation is not the most fluid as it is and the dirty western feel is not hampered by it. The set includes all 50 episodes on two Blu-Ray discs and the compilation movie (that changes some things for the ending) put on the second thereby giving you everything in one package. For the price and ease of availability this set is undoubtedly worth it. Just don't expect Blu-Ray quality as the series has not been upgraded for it even in Japan.

In the end, Xabungle is one of my favorite mecha series. It is in my top 3 Tomino series. The non-stop action and adventure punctuated with comedy and unexpected character drama is a unique blend one will not find in many other series, even at the time of anime's golden age. If you don't mind a good laugh in between the over the top action then you will enjoy it just as much. Japan might not make them like this anymore, but that doesn't mean we still can't watch them.

If you want a pure old school pulp tale of revenge, loyalty, and justice, you can't go wrong with Xabungle. It is one of the mecha genre's hidden gems. Don't pass it by!

The Ending Theme

In addition to this review, friend of the blog Rawle Nyanzi has recently written the first volume in a new mecha novel series of his own. I reviewed his earlier novella Sword and Flower awhile back, which is an action packed romp that wouldn't feel out of place from an '80s anime OVA. But now he graces us with his first novel in this storied genre.

The description:
Irma wishes to be the perfect girl: chaste, feminine, and generous. But when a giant monster stomps through her hometown, her plans crumbled right along with the stores and apartments. 
In the chaos of acrid smoke and panicked civilians, the private military company Shadow Heart snatched her friend out of the crowd and took her captive. 
Now Irma must pilot the Grand Valkyur, a mechanical titan of steel more powerful than any weapon made by human hands. With a brilliant sword that could cut any matter and gleaming armor that could withstand any weapon, the Valkyur challenges all who dare to fight it. 
But piloting the Valkyur means using violence -- and to Irma, violence is men's work. How can she rescue her friend without betraying the feminine elegance she prides herself on?
You can find it here.

It goes without saying that I already have my copy. If you enjoy mecha I suggest checking it out for yourself. You certainly won't find another story like this whether in the sterile military sf world or in modern anime. But if Japan won't cut the mustard anymore then the rest of us will have to pull up the slack. That's just how it is. The pulp revolution continues unabated.

Giant robots aren't going anywhere, and thank God for that!

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Playlist for the Dead World

No one is united

There are a few other blogs out there that post about how music affects how they write. Some post what goes through their head when typing out an action scene or maybe what might play in the movie version of their work. This can be fun for some, but that's not quite how I picture music when it goes through my brain, or when I write.

That isn't to say music isn't fun, one of my favorite bands is the Stray Cats, after all. But because of the strange situations I found myself in during my life my views on it began to change.

When I was a younger dumber kid I used to travel at least three hours a day and all I had was my CD player and at one point, regrettably, an iPod (that's a long story I will not go into) to keep me company as I walked, rode both buses, and took the good old underground transit to get to my destination. About all I was missing was a ride on a train and plane to complete the set. Nonetheless it was a very isolating experience riding alone in a crowd through the city.

But what music helped me do was pull me out of my comfort zone as someone trying to ignore the world around me. Trapped in a moving cell it gave me little choice but to pay attention. I hated the world, didn't like my life situation, wasn't fond of people, and was a general edgelord moron. Eventually, in what seemed like pure chance at the time, music did change my life. It opened a crack and allowed me to face some of the worst aspects of my situation and the modern world and finally made me grow up.

This isn't the goofy teenager in high school trying to listen to the coolest and toughest music I could to stand out, or the boy who mimicked the radio and really wanted to fit in. I began to understand just how powerful music could be in a way that matters.

And I'll be upfront about it: my music of choice was never really metal. I know there are a lot of metalheads who come by here, and I do admit that I like some myself, but it's never been my music of choice. For one, the satanism was embarrassing for me even back as an agnostic. It was either pathetic Boomer-ish "I hate you, Dad!" slop or hipster-style irony which is even more cringe-worthy. Of course not all metal is like that but the other issue I have is that the music is constantly loud and the instrument variety is lacking outside of the occasional keyboard. My issue with listening to most metal albums is that I get bored rather fast.

That's just my very peculiar taste talking. It can be very invigorating to listen to.

There are a few bands that did directly affect in that being trapped alone on a moving prison cell full of bodies and dealing with some heavy stuff in my life allowed me time to think. And no, political songs didn't do it for me. Neither did rant songs about religion or specific issues that align with a political party ticket. If Jello Biafra's voice didn't make me want to smash my head against the bus window his try-hard lyrics would. Milo Auckerman did what he did with a better voice and lyrics that hit a lot closer to home. You can relate to others by still being yourself and not having to force a viewpoint down the listener's throat. Message fiction can exist in music, too.

Case in point, one of the first songs that really affected me, and I think many people a generation older than me was this one.

Are you satisfied?

It's not a love song. It's not about drugs. It's not even really a rant. It's Paul Westerberg talking about his life without giving any details about it. This was released back in the '80s long before I heard it and back at a time when most people thought the world was looking up and getting better. But he says something different.

I didn't know much about the band when I heard that album, which is still one of my favorites. I didn't know that Westerberg is a Catholic*, that Bob Stinson had a drug problem and OD'd only a decade later, or that the band was a staunchly traditionalist rock band that hated MTV, music videos, and even CDs. I didn't know that the band was ignored by radio because of their abrasive sound and uncomfortable lyrics that cut deep in ways pop listeners didn't like at the time. They did this without shoving anything down the listener's throat.

"Are you satisfied?" is a lyric that hits lot harder than "Are you experienced?" but one is a lot more uncomfortable for radio to advertise than the other is. It is not an easy song to listen to if your insides are a mess. Something not there on the surface amidst the glam of a better era.

To be sure, I only think rock music does this. Rap is either party music or political rants and tired whining about the streets. Metal is either loud triumphant declarations or lame satanism. Jazz is meant for you focus purely on the sound, same as Classical. Modern pop music is fluff meant to empower the listener with lies about being special in a world where drinking yourself to death and being a slut amidst a sea of hedonists is a way to find meaning. Rock music can engage in all those as well, but you don't see many groups that try to find a bit more to life beyond the surface. Few take advantage of what they have.

Marshall McLuhan called rock the music of the city with its loud and distracting sounds, and that's how it represents modernism so well. When modernism has been such a failure it is up to rock musicians to portray it as it is. And some do it, and do it quite well.

Is it someone who looks down from above? With a view of the rain

Urge Overkill was another band that had that sort of affect on me. During my music hipster phase I consumed much terrible junk that I was told was great but actually wasn't at all. Amidst that torrential downpour of mediocrity I stumbled across UO right in the middle of it.

Their history is strange. They started themselves as a hipster indie band that was an ironic goof on the excesses of '70s rock. As a result their first two albums are pretty much trash with few highlights. A bunch of noise, winking, and posturing. But eventually their desire to be real and genuine pushed them forward out of the indie scene (and pissing off a lot of people who deserved it, like Steve Albini) and forming a proper sound. Their first major label album, Saturation, was a genuine rock n roll record with clever lyrics that had no problem skewering excess and hedonism. It did this while still providing plenty of pop hooks. The song Positive Bleeding, for instance, is about being so liberal and free that you can choose when you want to bleed and die and how wondrous that fact is. Nonetheless, the album is still their most popular and quite excellent.

However, it was their second major label release (and for many years, their last album) Exit the Dragon that really did a number on me.

After the success of Saturation in the early 90s when alternative rock was at its commercial and quality peak, the band fell victim to its own success. They became what they were originally parodying. Drug problems, drinking into blackouts, and crushing depression nearly killed them all. Now they understood exactly what they were making fun of and it wasn't as funny as they thought.

What happened was that they put out Exit the Dragon in 1995 right at the end of the alternative explosion, really signalling the end of the genre. The album is completely unlike anything they did before. It starts with the first track acknowledging the existence of evil and ends with the final track about death and ascending to the afterlife. The album is a journey through rock bottom and clawing out and reaching at the other-side at the end and finding hope in what comes next. This is not something Nirvana or their peers could ever write. I enjoyed the album so much I even wrote a post on it a few years ago.

But the album is not very comfortable, despite its sound being their most accessible, both of which contribute it not being as liked by their hardcore fans. There are a few jokes here such as Need Some Air poking fun at the writer's own paranoia and crushing fear of the modern world, but there are no more parodies. There's no satire. Evil exists and it wants to kill you. Until you accept that you will never escape the pits of despair or a world that cares nothing for you. That isn't the kind of rebellion the record companies approved of.

At the same time I discovered the second (and best) Violent Femmes album, Hallowed Ground. While the band was mostly a jokey bunch of wiseguys having fun writing songs about girls and teenage stuff, their second album is about death by sin and choking pressure of the evil of the world. It was nothing like anything else they ever did before or since. Outside of one track being about girls (which honestly does not fit here) there is nothing that the band is known for. And yet it is their most powerful work without question.

I was so glad when I died

Of course because of this unpleasantness, the album is routinely ignored. The above song is never even included in any of their compilations despite being their best track. There is a bit of a pattern with the music in this post.

It was Kurt Cobain who made "darker" music more acceptable, though he did so the John W. Campbell way of stripping out the Gothic, the soul of the rage against the modern age and replacing it with a hollow facsimile of what came before. In this case he took out the justified anger, the rich sounds, and unique song writing of a deeper tradition, and replaced it with his bleak hopelessness, sick fetishes, and generic pop punk sound. He made rage corporately approved. It's no coincidence that every band inspired by them is garbage. Cobain made for a good pet rebel in making others think he stood for something righteous. That's what the labels wanted you to think and they cashed in big on you being unsatisfied.

And, if you noticed, they never sold you the cure.

That was the early '90s when record companies tried to cash-in on the fall of the modern world by slapping a flannel dressing on it, throwing in some generic rage, and manufacturing nihilism for the youth without the cure for a decade. Soul Asylum even wrote a song about it. Chart topper, of course.

This post isn't about those bands. This is about those who weren't content with just sneering and rolling in the sty as if it didn't affect them. After the '80s there were a few groups that managed to strike at something outside the acceptable target zone. If it wasn't about killing yourself through hopelessness it was about killing yourself through hedonism or blaming certain political or religious groups for their troubles thereby missing the mark. There was no hope of escape from this self-fulfilling trap. But a handful did break the mold.

Newer bands of the '90s such as Blur or the Hives managed to write songs that went a bit beyond the typical pleasure-seeker or misery porn tropes. The former helped jump Britpop as a reaction to the slimy pit of rock music at the time, though that eventually went full hedonist in response by decade's end. The latter aided in kickstarting the garage rock revival a decade later though label interference prevented them in really putting out as much as they could have. As a result I don't think either band really had as much success as they could have (though the former was very popular in their native land) with Blur's most famous piece being known as the "Woo Hoo" song.

It was almost a parody of what they were.

This isn't to say fast paced fun songs can't give similar experiences beyond throwaway thrills. For instance I was into Green Day before they became a political mouthpiece, though most of the "punk" movement lost their way at the time, as well. We were all miserable and searching for hope. Then when political parties exchanged the world was just fine again! Everything was all better! Funny how that worked. All you need for inner peace is to vote the right way. So simple!

Once these bands betrayed their rage as being from a political party and religious group instead of a sign of the times I instantly lost respect in them. They missed the forest for the leaves. They were posing. The songs that reach far past political party lines to strike at the heart of the issue to unite groups are the most powerful. You are more than what you vote for or against. A slogan is a sentence, not a way of life. I thought these bands knew this.

Those who reached for more could still do it within the bounds of a fast-paced pop nugget.

Anyway, I ain't got no place else to go

I'm choking on the silence and I want to scream out

Say something. Say something else.

She was still awake

Doomsday visions of commies and queers

Can't control the state I'm in: go back in line and repeat it again

If any of that sounds depressing to you it's because it should. This is supposed to be the Blues: where Rock came from. A way to deal with the grime of a world soaked in sin by a cathartic expression of noise. This is what made the music click so well with an audience who understood things aren't as they were meant to be.

The world is a mess and things as they are remain utterly hopeless. It will never satisfy or be good enough. It's a wasteland. Things are bad and they're getting worse. Those who create a career playing a secular music style will have to face the fact that there is nothing waiting at the next bus stop and eventually you will run out of gas stranded in a desert with people you don't know. Perhaps being trapped in such a unique situation allows us the grace of understanding it in a way our thick skulls would allow it to sink in.

None of these bands are saying any of those messages are good things. In fact, they all agree that things are terrible. This is the most honest way to portray a purely material existence. For a rock band they are tasked with singing and writing songs about the world around them and connecting with us in the audience. Were they honest they would either have to sing songs about sex and drugs and pretend that is all to live for or they would have to face the fact that none of that really means anything at the end of the day. You're going to need something more, or you're going to begin looking at nooses to wear.

Raging against suicide culture is the most moral thing to do. That might be why those bands all helped me through tough times while those like Cobain and his ilk in the corporate approved pack only made me sicker. It was also probably why no bands with that more honest message were ever given any radio play, and never will.

I think you can trace this to pop culture's treatment of rock music itself. While mergers and payola ultimately killed rock in the mid to late '90s I think there was more to it. The '70s was filled with fun music about hot girls and having a blast with the guys, but by the '90s Gen X was out into the world they and were being too honest with the state of things. They didn't want to sing songs about the wonders of heroin or whisky or whores when the world was burning down around them and no one appeared to notice the flames. As someone in Gen Y who saw things getting worse and worse and didn't see any hope, I related to what they were putting down. Perhaps a bit too much.

Then when Nu Metal and Bubblegum pop filled the airwaves as if plastering over unsightly holes in the drywall with trash like N*Sync trying to put the genie back in the bottle most of us finally lost the last shred of hope. This really was a dead end. The record labels pounced and purged the bad thinkers and that is why gangsta crap and build-a-bear pop straight out of 1998 is still all the mainstream labels put out to this day. They want you locked in a cage with despair and hedonism. Can't let pesky truth get in the door.

Now rock music is a memory, pop music has remained unchanged since 1998, and the industry is still trying to pass out sugar-coated cockroaches and garbage to an audience that has long since walked away.

As I write this I do remember the attitude of music fans being rather dour throughout the '00s. To this day I have never met anyone who didn't grow up in that miserable time ever seeing that decade as anything good. Especially in regards to music. Most of my music choices during that time came from the '80s and '90s with a few choice pre-Beatles bands for good measure. Did audiences tune out because music stopped being honest and began being used as social brainwashing instead? A perusal of your average pop "hit" these days would easily answer that question.

Go to sleep, wake up, have fun, then go to sleep again. Work sucks, right? Well maybe that one night stand will fix that itch. But don't worry because the weekend is just ahead and you can have all the junk you can jam into your body then. Don't think about it and just keep smiling.

This isn't a way to say that fun music does not have its place. It absolutely does. Music from before the British Invasion did this quite well. There's nothing wrong with escapism at all, but the pop music of today isn't escapism. It's delusion. A way to paint over the cracks while glorifying what caused them in the first place and encouraging deeper fractures. It isn't meant to raise anyone, but to keep them down and asleep at the wheel. It is music for a dying society.

True escapism in music is from those who aim for higher things. Raging against death is noble, but so is celebrating life. And life is about more than going through the motions in order to be able to afford a coffin when you're dead. The love of true romance, of better days, and of the big questions, is worth your time. That is what pop music does best, and hasn't in decades. Might be hard to get across with the same group of corporate-approved songwriters for every single song and from singers who are completely without original thought or ambitions.

I can give you examples of exciting, lighter music meant to lift the audience. There is plenty of it, even if it doesn't feel like it these days. There is a way to be honest and uplifting without having to rage at the way things are. But no one knows how to do it these days.

Something calls to me, I know

Will I not pass the test?

I think I know some things we never outgrow

This is where we're coming from, and we're not the only ones

This was a bizarre post meant to highlight how music can affect writers in ways beyond plot or character ideas, but in how it can shake you awake and inspire in whole other unexpected ways. I've been big into music since I was a kid, and although the candy-coated Boomer stuff of the mid-'60s and early-'70s has long since fallen out of favor with me I am amazed at how powerful music can still be.

Inspiration is not an easily quantifiable thing. I don't listen to a song and get inspired to write a story. I listen to a song and it gets me down a mental track that allows me to have inspiration. Though I suppose this works with any piece of art. As it should be. Art is a conversation, after all. We're all speaking to each other here, no one is in a void. No matter how much the record companies wish it were so: no one listens to music to indulge their vices--they do it to connect with others.

We aren't a bunch of strangers alone in a crowd hoping to just get through the day so we can get to the next one. We watch shows and movies about others struggling to get through far worse than what we do. We listen to music hoping to be inspired to greater heights beyond these. We hope and we dream to escape the wasteland.

Who knows what sounds we're dying to hear that we just can't yet imagine? There's much more to experience. It's going to be grand, and satisfying.

Now it's time to fill up all the cracks inside of me

*Interview here. I recommend reading it for a glance at what Rock was at the time, and how some music critics were. For instance, the '90s music critic hatred of hot blooded rock n roll is alive and well with the dismissal of their very influential early albums as "unexceptional" only in recent years to rate them up there with their classics. Nonetheless it is a good interview that touches on good questions and subjects.

Relevant excerpt:

Do you think growing up Catholic affected your songwriting at all?
I suppose it did, because it affected my life. It affects my way of thinking and everything. I mean, I’m still a religious person. I believe in God, although I never sit down to write “God” songs. I have my belief, and my faith, and I keep it private. But I try to live right and treat people fairly, so I suppose that comes through in the music.

I had a feeling most of the later and post-Cobain punk, rock, and grunge acts were missing something he had. Not one of them could write about social decay like he has then turn around and write a cheeky track about a cute cashier or a love song someone he saw once on a sky-way. None of them can make a bright and big hard rocking song like this:

I think big once in a while

Full lyrics for this one, because they're needed:

Yeah, kid, it's a-really hip 
With plenty of flash and you know it 
Yeah, dad, you're rocking real bad 
Don't break your neck when you fall down laughing 
Donna, wanna, Donna 

Yeah, I know I look like hell 
I smoke and I drink and I'm feeling swell 
Yeah, I hear you think it's hip 
But Rock don't give a single shit 

Yeah, man, it's a-hip, you know what I'm saying 
It's a-hip, you know what I'm saying, and I hear it
My heart aches, it's a-looking for a lolly
Looking for a dolly, can't you hear it? 
Wanna be something, wanna be anything!

Yeah, I know I feel this way 
But I ain't gonna never change 
Yeah, I hear, I think, I know 
Rock don't give a shit, you know 

You're my favorite thing 
You're my favorite thing 
Bar nothing! 

I think big once in a while

And without that love Rock is dead.

For now.