28 April 2006

10,000 Days, by Tool

It’s a cracker. Better than I expected, actually. Somehow, although 2001’s Lateralus has some great tracks, I never thought it was as good as Tool’s 1996 masterpiece Aenima. The progression wasn’t quite as marked as before, and even the greatest tracks didn’t seem epic in the same way that 'Push It' or 'Third Eye' from Aenima did. And this time round epic is back, and in a big way; although it might take a few listens to get into it all. 10,000 Days is, in my rather opinionated view, the best ‘prog’ album since Marillion’s Marbles in 2004, and the best album since Kate Bush’s comeback album Aerial last year.

10,000 Days starts off in much the manner I had feared, which is rather well. The two openers 'Vicarious' and 'Jambi' are fine Tool songs, layered and building in a way that only a few contemporary bands seem capable of. But they felt like what I was expecting, and somehow that wasn’t enough from a Tool album. It’s been five years since the last release, and I didn’t want the new album to merely do what was expected: I wanted it to surprise me. I wanted to be blown away, not think that it made a nice companion to Lateralus. And with the third track I got what I wanted.

Actually, the third track is the first of a pair entitled 'Wings For Marie (Part 1)' and '10,000 Days (Wings Part 2)'. There’s a lull of a kind between them, like gathering breath, but the two belong together, and if you want to import them onto your iPod you’ll need to use the ‘Join CD Tracks’ option to avoid a click between them. And together they clock in at 17:24. If 'Wings…' resembles anything Tool have done before musically, it’s the live version of 'Push It' from Salival, but this is still more mediative; lyrically, it’s probably the most personal thing they’ve ever been, apparently about the death of Maynard's mother. It’s long, elegant, beautifully rhythmic, and quite possibly the most ‘prog’ thing they’ve ever done. And the fact that the album is set up to lull the listener into a false sense of security with the opening tracks before engaging in such an epic is a stroke of genius. On a lesser album, 'Wings…' would be placed at the end, not before the half-way point; but by the time you’ve reached the second part, it’s clear that you’re not listening to a normal album with normal programming. This is an album which is meant to demand your attention, to snap you out of complacency, to break away from the formulaic, even when those formulas are (pretty much) unique to Tool themselves.

The next track 'The Pot' is similarly askew, beginning like some kind of a-cappella shanty which momentarily reminded me of 'Fiddle and the Drum' from A Perfect Circle’s eMOTIVe. The vocal is not quite like anything else we’ve heard from Maynard before, and is mixed louder than on the rest of the album, making it the dominant feature. The song itself is good, although after Wings… it feels like there’s a little something missing.

After that we come to the first segue on 10,000 Days, a piece called 'Lipan Conjuring', which resembles nothing if not one of Can’s 'Ethnic Forgery Series', this time with Buddhist monks as the subject. Or maybe Native Americans. Or some bizarre synthesis of the two. Whatever it is, it works, and it provides an effective break between the two parts of the album.

Then we’re back to another epic, this time 'Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann) / Rosetta Stoned', which come to a combined total of 14:57. 'Keys…' works like an introduction, with movie samples providing a narrative, while 'Rosetta…' features probably the strangest vocal Maynard has ever committed to record. I have no real idea of what it being sung throughout most of it; the voice is more like an instrument than it has ever been, and snatches of lyric float in and out of coherence. Odd references to previous songs from previous albums enter the music briefly, as if 'Rosetta…' is somehow the theme underlying much of the band’s previous work. It’s possibly the densest thing Tool have ever done, more wall-of-sound than song, and certainly comparable to the densest moments of Aenima. What it’s all about I haven’t the foggiest, but it’s tremendously good. Definitely one to play to scare your friends, or to illustrate why Tool are unlike any other so-called Metal band.

Things then seem to settle down a bit with Intension. I've heard this compared to A Perfect Circle, and although there is a certain similarity in the opening vocal, the music is more atmospheric that anything Maynard’s Other Band have done. The percussion is initially based around tabla rather than drum-kit, and as song builds there seems to be some drum programming going on - although I wouldn’t put it past Danny Carey to be playing like a drum-machine rather than using one.

With 'Right In Two' the tabla is back, and the album heads towards its conclusion. The lyric evokes the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, while the music hypnotically climbs towards a dramatic resolution. And then there’s the odd ambient/industrial piece 'Viginti Tres', and 10,000 Days is over, more than 75 minutes after it began.

My initial impression is that the new album is better than Lateralus by quite some way. I’m not in a position to compare it to Aenima yet, but then that was a masterpiece. Yet it certainly has more in common with the earlier record. All of Tool’s trademarks are here in abundance: rhythmic playing like no other Metal band, epic songs, ethereal voice, surprising arrangements and original programming. But it while it is arguably the most ‘prog’ album Tool have yet released, and also the most cohesive, my guess is that it will be less successful than Lateralus - which entered the American charts at #1. My reason for thinking this is that 10,000 Days is less bound by convention, and far less easy to pigeon-hole. It’s unlike anything else out there at the moment, and some people will undoubtedly decide that it’s cool to say it sucks. Others will find the it immensely rewarding; and I will definitely be among them.

14 April 2006

God's own truth

Oh no, another long comment from the Dilbert Blog. This time the topic is the errors and inconsistencies in the Bible, and people who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.

I didn’t read through all the comments posted over there, but what I did read was more worrying than the original topic. Why would anyone want to argue that the errors in the Bible prove that it’s all a load of rubbish? And why would anyone want to say that any books discussing the same errors are just a liberal (not a dirty word in Europe, btw) attempt to undermine Bush’s voters? None of this has anything to do with the point.

The fact that there are errors in the Bible is, quite frankly, passé. It should be utterly uncontroversial. There are whole sections missing from what most people now consider the definitive versions, namely the Apocrypha. These were once considered as much a part of the text as the current canon, but were edited out at a later date because they seemed inconsistent - in fact, they were included in the earliest versions of the King James Bible. There are entire disciplines of scriptural study looking into the origin, consistency and meaning of the Bible. For example, religious scholars have for centuries concerned themselves with hermeneutics:
The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneuts, especially Protestant exegetes, to view Scriptural texts as secular Classical texts were viewed. Scripture thus was interpreted as responses to historical or social forces, so that apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament, for example, might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporaneous Christian practices.

So there is nothing new about any of this. After all, The King James Bible is a English translation. And if a text is translated, say, from English into German, and then back again, the new English text will contain countless discrepancies from the original source. It is factually impossible to regard the Bible as the literal word of God when what we mean by ‘The Bible’ is an English-language translation, the standard version of which dates from more than 1,500 years after Christ is supposed to have died.

As far as I know, Muslims do believe that the Koran is the word of God, and accordingly any translation is merely a stepping-stone to the real thing. And again, as far as I know, they have a proof, and a test - the language is supposed to be so beautiful that it could not have been written by humans, and there is a age-old challenge to disbelievers to write something more beautiful. For better or for worse, the Bible has never been like that, and even less so since Martin Luther made the translation of the Bible into the ‘common’ language one of the defining points of Protestantism (and how many of you Catholics have a Latin or Greek Bible at home?).

What I’m getting at is that no-one with any awareness of the study of scripture would find anything here to get fired up about. Pointing out that there are errors and inconsistencies in the Bible should make absolutely no difference to a believer’s faith, any more than a list of clumsy sentences by Shakespeare would undermine the fact that he was the greatest writer of English to have ever lived.

I’m reminded of a song on an embarrassing CD that I own. It has the inspired lyric, “I keep my Bible in a bucket of blood so that I don’t get corrupted by its lies.” It struck me when I first heard it that the only people to get quite so angry about the Bible are fundamentalists and Heavy-Metal singers. They mutually offend each other, the Bible being kicked back and forth like a football, only neither side scores a goal, because both sides miss the point. The Bible is above all this, as a text, as an object of faith, as a means to God. I’m not religious, but it seems clear to me that reducing it to the mere words on the page, for whatever reason - either for their truth or their falsity - is to bend it to someone’s will, rather than letting it speak for itself.

I’ll end with a little thought-experiment, in the form of a quotation from that favourite fundamentalist scapegoat, Marilyn Manson: “Do you love your guns? God? Government?” Look at that list carefully: if you see nothing offensive in the associations being made, and no actual criticism of the Bible itself, then there there’s hope (he says patronisingly). But then, you probably couldn’t see what all the fuss was about with the errors in the Bible, either.

11 April 2006

Free Will and Determinism

Been a while since I posted anything on The Dilbert Blog, but today’s topic got me going, so here you are: a typical Matt rant.

Here’s my take on the whole free will thing, for what it’s worth. And I’m going to start by talking about Leibnitz.

Leibnitz’s view of cause and effect is that they are, in themselves, unconnected. What we call a cause does not lead to what we, with our teleological world-view, call an effect. They are simply events, occurrences. What holds these two things together, according to Leibnitz, is God, who has created a pre-established harmony between all things. Here's an example from Wikipedia:
An apple falls on Alice's head, apparently causing the experience of pain in her mind. In fact, the apple does not cause the pain - the pain is caused by some previous state of Alice's mind. If Alice then seems to shake her hand in anger, it is not actually her mind that causes this, but some previous state of her hand.

I mention this for couple of reasons. Firstly, to illustrate cause and effect may not be as simple as most people assume. The statement ‘X causes Y’ makes assumptions about the nature of the world, and those assumptions may be substituted for others - indeed, with no difference to what we see in the world around us. I will still associate the apple falling on my head with pain - all I must do is discard the notion that the apple ‘causes’ the pain.

Secondly, Leibnitz ascribes the actual relationship between a supposed cause and effect to God. While this may seem somewhat preposterous with the example of the apple, most everyone in the Christian world (I can’t vouch for the others) is perfectly familiar with this concept. ‘God moves in mysterious ways’, we say, meaning that some event cannot be understood by our usual appeals to ‘simple’ cause and effect, or indeed free will. It’s a form of shorthand for explaining how some absurdly fortuitous event came to take place - how, out of the multitude of possibilities, the right person seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the right thing to happen to them. This common phrase simply means that a certain series of causes and events seems best understood as have been aligned by God. And of course, this is not dissimilar from the whole Intelligent Design argument (don’t worry, we won’t be going there).

If we think about the example with the apple, the same explanation can easily be applied - the wrong person was in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong thing to happen to them. But this too can easily become ‘the right thing’ - Alice is knocked unconscious by the falling apple, then falls in love with the nurse who tends to her. A seemingly bad series of events leads to a good result, and the best explanation we can offer is those mysterious ways of God.

Now my point here is not that I think that God is responsible for a pre-established harmony, but rather that there is, if we look closely, something indefinable - mysterious - about cause and effect, in particular in how it relates to our lives. We have a very localised common-sense understanding of cause and effect - the apple causes the pain - but the moment we start to look further afield - to the wind blowing, causing the ripe apple to fall, hitting Alice on the head when she only paused under the tree to tie her shoelace which had just come undone - that common sense understanding of cause and effect begins to break down into something which we generally struggle to understand. Leibnitz, and the familiar phrase mentioned above, called that indefinability ‘God’. The essence of Leibnitz’s argument about pre-established harmony is taking this oddness of wider, less-localised causality, and applying it to supposedly ‘simple’ causality - in effect saying, ‘There’s no such thing as simple causality - we can’t even understand why an apple falling on a head causes pain!’

In the discussion about free will and cause and effect, this is the level at which we have to pitch the argument. ‘X causes Y’ it isn’t; you’ll get a better idea of the problems and implications of causality if you remember the notion that ‘God moves in mysterious ways’.

Someone might object that Alice chose to bend down under that tree and tie her shoelace, but how do we know? What does ‘choice’ mean? A proponent of the determinism (such as me, I guess) would say that she thought she chose, meaning that she was unable to see the near-infinite complex of causes which led to that action. That complex of causes is mysterious, indefinable and imperceptible to our human perception of the world, and in everyday parlance we are happy to call it ‘choice’, or to ascribe purpose to God. But these are short-hands for our limited perspective sensing something it cannot grasp, and seeking to describe it.

Free will, in its common everyday usage, is no better than ‘choice’, in my view. It is simply a (natural) inability to understand the wider causes and effects. We ascribe it to ourselves, as the ‘highest’ intelligence we are aware of, and are sceptical of applying it to supposedly ‘lower’ life-forms, whose determinism we think we understand. But I’m sure that in some way a cat ‘thinks’ it's thinking, thinks it has free will - from its own perspective - and most likely ascribes the same level of intelligence to us. The late, brilliant, Douglas Adams supposed than mankind was only the third most intelligent species on the planet; naturally, the more intelligent species (dolphins and mice) were aware that humans were less intelligent, but humans were unaware of the fact - assuming themselves to the the only intelligent creatures, and the only ones with free-will.

What I’m getting at is that the idea of free-will stems from the limits of our own perception of cause and effect. We conceive of ourselves as having free-will, but a creature more intelligent than us would most likely not - although they might very well be aware that we think we do. We ourselves are no longer convinced, as we look more and more into genetics, biology, psychology, and so on to find explanations for behaviour and actions.

But free-will is not dead, just a hypothetical default. If we find an acceptable alternative, we employ it. If a court of law determines that a murderer is insane, he or she is not punished in the same way as someone who is considered to be in full control of their senses. On the argument I’ve put forward above, the sane person is no more in control than the lunatic; only in the case of the lunatic we have a ‘simple’ explanation - a simple cause, if you will - and with the sane person we do not. But the court still acts ‘as if’ the sane person is in full control, ‘as if’ they have free-will. Whether they ‘actually’ do has no bearing on the functioning of the court and the world in general. There would be no anarchy if everyone became a card-carrying proponent of determinism; indeed, it might be more complicated if everyone became a proponent of absolute free-will. Nothing would be changed, anymore than, to the naked eye, the world looks any different if we use a Ptolemaic system (the sun goes round the earth) or a Copernican system (the earth goes round the sun); but the finer details will be more precise.

In my view, everything about the scientific perspective leads to determinism, and free-will is at best a metaphor. It is an important one, which, when no simpler, more practical explanation is offered, has a fundamental role in the functioning of society. Yet while there is nothing more to it than an ‘as if’, there is nothing simplistic or debasing in recognising that determinism is the only adequate description of the world; Leibnitz, after all, equated cause and effect with God.

04 April 2006

Unemployment

Before coming to Germany, I was unemployed in Britain for a couple of years. Wasn’t much fun, but one event seems to encapsulate it fairly well…

I stayed around in Lampeter (where I went to uni) for a couple of years, applying for jobs in cheese factories, that sort of thing. I had no money, but had decided that I could buy one second-hand CD from Hag’s Records every two weeks; I didn’t smoke, hardly drank, and still that was all I could afford. But Hag had a deal where you could make a one-time payment up front, then rent a couple of CDs at a time for £1 each; if you then decided to buy them, the CDs would be £1 cheaper than the cover price. Very fair, and a godsend for a music nut like me in a time of unemployment.

(Great man, Hag, an ex-student, and stood for election as the local Labour candidate in the 1998 election when Tony Blair came to power and Labour put an end to 17 years of the Tories… He didn’t get elected, ‘cos Lampeter was in the Plaid Cymru heartland—that’s the Welsh national party—but came a good second.)

On the occasion I want to talk about, I borrowed Mark of the Mole by The Residents, a special edition of the CD which included Intermission—music played during the intermission of the tour they did at the time—and sleeve notes explaining how you should programme the CD if you wanted to listen to the two mixed together as they were meant to be. This was the first Residents album I’d heard, and I was perhaps more than a little influenced by the middle-aged assistant in Hag’s Records, whose view was that the Residents were, well, “Weird but not wonderful.”

He—I think his name was Bob—or Dave?—was a big Can fan. Another remark of his was that he only regretted selling the records he had of two artists—Can and Captain Beefheart. I now have everything Can ever recorded, although I’ve yet to catch up on the Captain. Another great comment of his was on Björk, something like, “Her name is like the sound I want to make when I hear her music.” Beautifully opinionated, which no doubt appealed to me, even if I didn’t always agree—soon after that Björk released Homogenic and I was hooked; and he hated Jethro Tull (“Why would I want to listen to a multi-millionaire who dresses like a beggar and jumps around on one leg?”), who are undoubtedly the band who have endured most throughout my constantly-changing record collection. On one occasion I think I got the better of him—Hag had just got in a special edition of Tabula Rasa by Einstürzende Neubauten, with two bonus eps and an interview disc. Being inclined to check out anything German at the time, I borrowed the CD, loved it, and went back to Hag’s to buy the thing. Hag reckoned it was probably just the price of a double-album, and gave it me for about £14. You could have picked the assistant’s jaw up off the floor. He thought it should have been three times that price as a limited special edition, and that I’d just got the deal of the year. I was chuffed. Anyway, back to the story.)

Weird the album was, but there were definitely some moments of wonder. At the time I thought most of the best moments were in the somewhat lighter Intermission part—it was my first Resident's album, you know?—I was on the cusp of my musical tastes turning a little odd (Can, Faust, Neubauten, Residents) but wasn’t quite there yet. And I listened to this album over and over, and it started to grow on me, but, somehow, not enough. I loved parts, but didn't ‘get’ others. And I decided that, on my one £7-CD a fortnight budget, this wasn't the one. I did what I now consider sacrilege, and made a taped copy, abusing of the fairness of Hag’s rental deal. And worse, I edited the almost 70-minute CD down to fit onto a 45-minute cassette, removing the parts I didn't ‘get'. Took the CD back, and borrowed something else, I don’t remember what. And this truncated corruption followed me to Germany when I got a job teaching English in the university of Jena.

In July 1999, The Residents performed in the Kulturarena in Jena, and I went to see the concert with Frank, an ex-student of mine. Though not a ‘fan’ at that point, I was amazed that in our city of 100,000 people in the old East Germany, we would get a band like that to perform, and there was never any question about seeing them live. They were touring Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, and it was quite simply the most incredible concert I had ever seen. It still is—the next time I saw anything in the same league was Trey Gunn's guitar playing at the KTU concert in 2005, again Kulturarena. It was more like performance art than rock concert. By the end there was nothing more that the initially bewildered audience could do than to stand up and applaud. Both Frank and I came away fans. And I went home and dug out that cassette of Mark of the Mole, and a hunt began.

The 'horror' of what I had done—copying the CD, truncating it, and onto cassette of all things—finally began to hit home. I scanned the sales catalogue of EuroRalph, The Resident’s record company in Europe, but couldn’t find the CD I had heard not more than two years before. It was a special edition, and Mark of the Mole was normally released without Intermission. Intermission itself—a 20-minute CD—was released separately, and for almost the same price as the main album. That was no good! I wanted both—in one place, and in the right playing order! I had no computer at the time, and what is common now—ripping the CD in iTunes and making your own playlists—was unknown to me then. I could have bought both CDs and copied them onto a cassette (!) in the right order, but no. I wanted the CD I had once had in my hands, but had slipped through them, through the limitations which being unemployed impose, and through the greed of being able to copy and return. And I searched and searched and searched but could not find.

Fast forward seven years. A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing on Amazon and came across a new special edition of Mark of the Mole, beautifully packaged, including lyrics, and accompanied by Intermission on a separated CD. Purchase was instantaneous. Two CDs are now no problem in this age of the iPod. True, it wasn’t the actual CD I had quested after, but I could finally listen to the album in all its glory. And glorious it is too; an epic metaphor on the woes and prejudices of immigration, cast in an industrial mould with hints of folk and jazz. One of the finest CDs I have, without a doubt.

The title of this post is ‘Unemployment’, and to me finally managing to find Mark of the Mole has made me think about what that aspect of my life meant to me. That quest was the only lasting result. Before I came to Germany I sold off almost all my music and anything superfluous in order to scrape together enough money to survive the first few months. Now I’m surrounded by books, CDs and DVDs, and I’ve had a job for eight years. I may be bouncing along the bottom of my overdraft, but at least I know that if I don’t indulge and buy too many X-Files DVDs (oops! too late!) I can actually improve my financial standing. But that Residents CD somehow represents everything I associate with being unemployed; the limitation, the frustration, the misplaced opportunities, the bad choices. Everything good that happened seemed to come from outside: moving to Germany, teaching in the university. Listening to the album nine years after I last heard it is somehow like putting a full stop on a period of my life.