19 December 2007

His Dark Materials

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
- Oscar Wilde

Philip Pullman once remarked that he was surprised that the Christian right had taken so little notice of his trilogy. That seems to have changed with the release of the cinematic version of the first volume, and recently I've been reading various reviews and interviews that I've found around the internet. And a better illustration of Wilde's dictum I can't imagine.

Pretty much the only thing that's certain is that Pullman regards himself as an atheist, and considers his novel as an attack on organised religion, and Christianity in particular. Anything more than that is unclear. While some avowed Christians believe that Pullman is teaching children to kill God, and that His Dark Materials is evil, others—most notably the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, Dr Rowan Williams—think that the novel(s) should be read by everyone. I've even heard it called 'a Christian classic', with some believing that, while Pullman thinks he is attacking Christianity, he is inadvertently upholding its principles. Many materialists and atheists have embraced the work as being 'anti-Narnia'; yet others—myself included—have been mildly confused as to why everyone thinks the novel is so materialist: it rather seems dualist, since everyone in Lyra's world has a dæmon, effectively an embodiment of the soul. Pullman's response: you don't have to be an emergent materialist to be a materialist.

Maybe you do, maybe you don't. But while some have called for a boycott of the film, others have criticised it for pulling too many punches—for not bashing God enough (for example, the tyrannical Magisterium is never referred to as 'the Church', as it is in the novel).

There are altogether too many critics, too many bandwagons, too many agendas: blissful ignorance is not an option, then, for anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Less antagonistically, I mean to say that the books are causing such controversy that you owe it to yourself to ignore everything you've heard, read them, and find out what the fuss is about. Just remember that, as Wilde said, art mirrors the spectator, not reality.

05 December 2007

The Golden Compass

Just got out of watching this for the second time today (honest!) and I have to say that I have mixed feelings. I did enjoy it more on the second viewing—as I suspected I might—because I wasn't looking for holes. Just like everyone else is doing, to make my point I'll compare it to The Lord of the Rings.

There's a scene in the theatrical version of The Fellowship of the Ring where you see a shot of Boromir in a boat looking peeved; and later, as he's dying, he seems overly enthusiastic when Aragorn say that he will save 'our' people. The meaning of the two scenes really only becomes clear in the special edition; just before the scene in the boat, Aragorn and Boromir argue, and Aragorn insists that he will never take the Ring near 'your' city. Everything falls into place with the addition of this scene. Boromir is tense because of the argument, and because he believes that Aragorn's refusal to accept his lineage will lead them all to doom; similarly, when Aragorn says 'our' rather than 'your', Boromir understands that Aragorn has finally accepted his fate: and that gives him hope in his last moments. There's an entire level of narrative and interaction between these two characters which is absent in the theatrical version, and which is essential to proper appreciation of the film.

The Golden Compass is full of these moments, or rather, full of telling omissions. It's not that it contradicts the details of Philip Pullman's excellent novel, so much as it leaves out details which lend sense to the rest of the film. Everything on the screen — aside, perhaps, from the readings of the compass itself — is great: the acting is excellent, the music is good, the digital effects superb; but somehow the whole amounts to less than the sum of its parts. It suggests the story, rather that embodying it.

If ever there was a film which truly needed an extended director's cut, this is it. It should be, and still could be, a magnificent film; but we'll have to wait and see.

(I'm looking forward to the start of the next instalment — assuming it gets made — since it should open with Roger being killed by Asriel. Maybe too bleak a way to end a film, but an awesome way to begin one. Bwah ha ha.)

29 November 2007

In Autumn…, by Faust

I have to say, I'm less than convinced. When I bought this box set I was overjoyed: the last recording Faust released was their great collaboration with Dälek in 2004, and I was looking forward to hearing what they'd been up to since then. Such a generous offering (3 CDs and a DVD) seemed just what I needed. But these concerts, taken from a UK tour in late 2005, are not the Faust I'm used to, and are far from what I wanted. In essence, on these recordings you're listening to Faust III, and they bear little resemblance to the Faust who have been releasing albums for the past decade, after a 20-year hiatus. Gone is the seemingly organic industrial experimentation: it's been replaced by tired rehashes of past hits. Most of the tracks have unfamiliar names, and say that they are 'inspired' by Faust songs, but don't be fooled: for the most parts they are just extended jams around old riffs, and there isn't really much inspiration to be found anywhere. For the first time, Faust sound like ageing hippies.

That's not to say In Autumn… is really all that terrible, although admittedly the audio quality is pretty poor. It just sounds like the kind of thing you'd expect a band to produce on a thirty-year reunion: a pale echo of former glories. There's a bit of weirdness thrown in for good measure, and the best things on here are the completely new improvisations. But when, just a year before these recordings, Faust were pretty much cutting edge, In Autumn… comes as a shock to the system.

Recommended only if you have no idea what Faust have been doing since 1975, and you think that So Far and IV are the best things the original band recorded.

11 October 2007

No Smoking

Today I walked into 'Bagels and Beans' to have one of their freshly-made bagels for lunch; and the first thing I did was gag on the smoke. I suppose the effect was accentuated by the contrast with the slightly chilly autumn air outside; but still, my first inclination was to walk right outside again and find somewhere else. Instead I stayed, and watched the woman behind the counter prepare the food, all the while aware of the unpleasant stink in the air.

Since we got back from Britain, I've felt disgust at cigarette smoke more than before. The trip was a revelation. For the last 9 years I've considered almost every aspect of German café/pub life to be superior to its British counterpart—not least the fact that there is hardly any distinction between café and pub. But in Britain they now have something better that the lack of drunkards, the ability to order coffee or hot chocolate at night without being looked at like a freak, and cafés that stay open until one in the morning—in Britain, they have no smoking in public places. And this, good people, is awesome.

Of course, all the smokers will complain about having to go and stand outside when they want a fag. Irrelevant, as far as I'm concerned. The next step in the argument is to accuse us non-smokers of being hypocrites—while our objection is that smokers impose their habits on us, our solution is to impose our will on them. Their habit makes us uncomfortable; we solve it by making them uncomfortable. We limit their freedom to relax by forcing them into the cold night air. How illiberal is that?

But there is an important difference. If smoking was a habit which did not impact on everyone else, then there might be some truth in the claims of hypocrisy. But one person smoking in a pub results in everyone else smelling of smoke. You might not feel unclean after a cigarette, but I do. My hair stinks; my clothes stink. Do you have any idea how revolting it is to eat food while a person on the table opposite is puffing away? It's no fun, and that's a fact.

No: the issue is not about one side imposing their will on the other. It's about responsibility. You chose to smoke; you know it's unhealthy, and that passive smoking is bad for everyone around you. You chose to fill your lungs with tar; now live with the consequences. True, smoking is your choice, and a liberal society should be amenable to people's choices (I'm with The Economist in believing that all drugs should be legalised)—but don't think that the right to choose gives you the concomitant right to infringe on everyone else's rights.

Imagine how fabulous it would be if all the smokers of the world realised how unpleasant their habit is for everyone else, and voluntarily decided to leave cafés to smoke. An excellent world, but it isn't about to happen any time soon. But short of that, it's only right that governments take matters into their own hands and ban smoking in public places—if you're not prepared to take responsibility for your antisocial habits, don't be surprised when others make the decision for you.

Come on, Germany: what are you waiting for?

16 August 2007

subHuman, by Recoil

So yesterday I got hold of the new Recoil album, subHuman. And pretty good it is too. It's brimming with the intense, dark atmosphere that Alan Wilder has made his own. If anything, despite the horrible prog-rock-esque artwork, this might be the least commercial thing he's released since leaving Depeche Mode. Certainly, it's the polar opposite of whatever execrable pop Depeche Mode are churning out nowadays. It’s almost as if he sucked all of the intensity out of the band when he left and honed it to perfection—impressive for an electronics wizard who only penned one—frankly awful—song for them.

Still, it's been seven years since the release of the awesome Liquid, and the first question is whether anything has changed. Yes and no. The album is arguably the most focused thing he's done, but it also lacks the diversity of its predecessor and 1997's Unsound Methods—and possibly 1992's Bloodline as well. That diversity was in some ways the strength and weakness of Recoil, and in the same way the focus of subHuman is both its strength and weakness.

Recoil pieces—I hesitate to call them songs—are usually collaborations between Wilder and a singer—directly, or sampled. Bloodline featured vocals by Moby, Toni Halliday, Douglas McCarthy, and a sampled Bukka White; Unsound Methods involved McCarthy again, Maggie Estep, Hildia Campbell and Siobhan Lynch; and Liquid enlisted the talents of Diamanda Gálas, Nicole Blackman, Samantha Coerbell, Rosa Torras, and Sonya Madden on a single b-side, while sampling The Golden Gate Quartet. That's quite a list of names, and quite a range of styles; but Wilder deftly managed to pull everything together into a coherent sound and make everything work. Still, with such a range of vocal talents, it's inevitable that some singers stand out more than others—although Samantha Coerbell's contributions are fine pieces, they're both overshadowed entirely by Nicole Blackman's. And only on the (extended) single release of Stalker do two of the artist contribute to one piece—in that case Maggie Estep and Douglas McCarthy, creating a disturbing depiction of the pursuer and the pursued.

subHuman has only two vocalists—five of the seven pieces feature bluesman Joe Richardson, with Carla Trevaskis contributing breathy vocals (which put me in mind of Kate Bush) to the remaining two. Naturally, Richardson offers the kind of continuity which was impossible on the previous albums—he's there from start to finish, lending a bluesy growl to everything. In some ways that's the problem—it isn't difficult to form the impression that subHuman takes the sonic landscape of, say 'Electro Blues for Bukka White' from Bloodline, or 'Red River Cargo' from Unsound Methods, and turns it into an entire album. Throwing your lot in with a vocalist to such an extent can be a risk for a 'band' like Recoil: much as I feel that the last Sofa Surfers album was flawed because it stuck with a single vocalist who didn't overly impress me. And so Recoil fans will either lament the diversity of subHuman, or praise its depth, continuity and sense of development. As for anyone else, well, it's hardly likely people will pick this up by chance, and people coming from Depeche Mode will probably be in for a shock.

But depth and beauty the album does have. More than perhaps anyone else out there is currently doing, Wilder is creating musical environments. Which isn't to say that it's ambient waffle—the pieces on subHuman are dramatic and richly rhythmic, building to almost cacophonic crescendos before collapsing into moments of tranquility. And there's nothing minimalist about subHuman either, but Wilder seems to do a lot without doing much—there's a sparseness and sense of economy which permeates everything, not a beat or note too much, or too little.

When it comes down to it, if you like dark, complex and, dare I say it, intellectual electronic music, you should definitely give it a spin. I can imagine it causing a something of a split amongst existing fans, but slightly confounded expectations aside, it's an album which you should listen to repeatedly to fully absorb. If possible on headphones with the lights out. And that way, you won't be able to see the artwork, either.

And if you are going to pick it up, try and get hold of the limited edition—the bonus DVD comes with PCM stereo, 24 bit DTS 5.1, and 5.1 surround versions of the main album; as well as all five of Recoil's previous promotional videos, along with new videos for 'Shunt' and 'Electro Blues for Bukka White (2000 remix)'. Perhaps most interesting, though are the 'Reduction' remixes—every piece in a more down-tempo form, lyrics (mostly?) intact, essentially offering an alternate version of the album. I can see some people preferring the reduced version to the original—the remixes are that good. The case lists the run-time as 162 minutes, if that gives you an idea of the amount of material here. Worth every penny.

10 August 2007

Universal Music shows its true colours

So Universal Music has decided to offer DRM-free music for download. Hooray! Except they won't be doing it through iTunes, but through all its main competitors. Universal's argument is that Apple's DRM has stifled growth of the online music market, and thus they will not be offering their DRM-free music through the the leading online distributor. As John Gruber said, WTF?

It's quite simple really. Universal are painting Apple as being the big bad guy who needs to be toppled. The iTunes Music Store is the leading distributor of legal online music—and it's achieved that position because it was the first service to convince the major music labels that there really was a way to distribute music online and legally. DRM was the catalyst which got the record companies on board, despite it being clear that what the public wants is DRM-free music. And now that the whole DRM model has become increasingly unsustainable, everybody is tripping over themselves pointing fingers at each other and saying that the whole DRM thing was someone else's idea.

Hence, Universal are now claiming that Apple is addicted to DRM music, because it locks people into the iPod. True, Apple's-DRM based music will only play on iPods. But iPods will also play pretty much everything else except WAV. In fact it's a blatant lie: given that Steve Job's recent 'Thoughts on Music' was backed up by offering DRM-free music in collaboration with EMI on iTunes, it should be clear to anyone with a modicum of integrity that Apple isn't bothered about the so-called iPod lock-in. iTunes is the market leader; the iPod is the market leader; and they will both remain so because they simply blow the competition out of the water. Just like being able to install Windows on your Mac via Bootcamp: yes, Apple could lock you in to Mac OS X if they wanted, but given the choice, you're going to stick to Mac OS X anyway. People will use Bootcamp for playing games, that sort of thing—but they'll live in OS X because the user experience is so much better. At the risk of sounding too much like an Apple fan-boy, the key thing that you have to remember about Apple is that they are absolutely convinced that they don't need lock-in: they've got quality instead. Hence Job's comments that they won't be bringing out a budget-priced Mac even though it would garner market share—there's certain lines they won't cross, like releasing rubbish.

The whole DRM finger-pointing is just a distraction from the real issue, which is cleverly hidden down at the bottom of the NYT article:
Under Universal’s arrangements with digital retailers, at least some of its new music will be sold in unprotected form for 99 cents, company executives said.

At least some—that's the key. The problem is that Apple has steadfastly refused to change the pricing strategy on which iTunes is based—99¢ per song. When EMI and Apple launched the iTunes Plus concept, with DRM-free songs of twice the quality for $1.59, there was some discussion with how that would fit together with the rest of the store. Again, quality—this time of user experience. There is a simple, elegant pricing strategy which permeates everything. But once they were convinced that the whole online thing could be profitable, the big labels have decided that such transparency was not what they wanted (EMI excluded, hopefully). What they want is variable strategies, with 'budget' prices for back catalogues and premium prices for everything else. Lonny Donegan you'll be able to buy for peanuts; you want the Pussy Cat Dolls, you pay through the nose.

While Apple and EMI have shown us what the future of online music could look like, Universal are digging their heels in and trying to recapture the past—a past where the consumer is kept in the dark as much as possible, because lack of and clarity consumer iand clarity is deemed an economic advantage. This isn't about DRM at all. It's about whether quality vs. quantity, transparency vs. obfuscation. The basic aim is the same—naturally, all these companies want to make money—but the methods are different. Do they provide you with the kind of service where you part with your cash willingly, or manipulate you into thinking you're getting a bargain when you're not?